Inside USAA’s new 120-person Austin design studio

Finance giant USAA is amping up its customer experience focus with a new design studio in Austin to house the 120 people it has focused on improving digital experiences.  The goal is to make financial planning, applying for a mortgage or choosing insurance coverage as easy as ordering up an Uber or buying something off Amazon.

“It’s time to turn up the discipline, the capacity, the way we partner and do the actual work,” said Meriah Garrett, the bank’s chief design officer. “A big part of that is hiring. The Austin market is to really able to scale up at pace… there’s a tremendous local talent pool.”

Among U.S. banks, USAA has a reputation for innovation. It was one of the first banks to get into mobile check deposit and online banking, for instance. It chose to locate its design operations in Austin, a tech hotbed, versus its home base in sleepy San Antonio.

The studio looks like a modern office, but with a lot of collaboration spaces. There are no office cubes, but a lot of stand desks. 

“Designers are a little bit obsessed with vertical working space and being able to ‘externalize,’” Garrett said, whether it comes in the form of work sketches, Post-Its scribbled with research quotes and findings, or marking up work in red pen.

In banking, the focus on design and customers’ digital experiences came recently, with the rise of financial technology and the growth of the mobile channel. Many banks have invested more heavily in design in the last two years – take Chase, which opened new Manhattan headquarters for its digital team almost a year ago – but it can take years to see a real impact, Garrett said.

The reality of user experience design is businesses and executives don’t experience the brand the way customers do and as a result, all this work around customer experience falls short. For example, people in finance treat finance like it’s a well known entity, Garrett said. They know it’s been around for years an years, understand the vehicles, mechanisms and why to choose one account over another.

“In reality, most people are operating their regular lives and finance happens to be a part of it,” she said. “One of the things that has really struck me is how much people are missing the 101. That is a tremendous weight for design practice at USAA, an opportunity to change conversation and emotion we all have about money.”

To drive that conversation, USAA is using new technologies and different types of artificial intelligence, but Garrett said making sure it’s the right conversation often comes down to the designers and team members themselves – the humans behind the products.

The bank doesn’t have a universal measurement for impact, Garrett said, and that’s something that’s challenging the whole industry. She sees it as an opportunity to really identify or detail a given customer experience in a way that gives insight and understanding to the designers. She also said she tries to avoid hard measures like numbers or clicks.

“You have to do detailed visibility testing but also understand emotions that bring someone to an experience. If it’s an in-and-out transaction, like trying to make sure you get your bill pay right, it’s all about speed and clarity,” she said.

Appropriateness is the key design principle.

“It comes down to how you apply things appropriately… That drives me to why we have to have really good people. What keeps me up right now is hiring – hiring quality and pace and making sure we grow the right talent at USAA in order to be able to fulfill on this vision.”

Why robo-advisers are looking to former magazine editors for the human touch

Robo-advisers Wealthsimple and Ellevest believe in the human touch after all.

Both have plucked editors from top publications in order to personalize the often-dry world of investment advice by focusing on lifestyle matters. Ellevest hired chief design officer Melissa Cullens, who was an independent design strategist that recruited to lead the re-design of its website. Canada-based Wealthsimple, which expanded to the U.S. last week, hired Devin Friedman, a former GQ editorial director, as brand editor to lead its section that features interviews with people about the role money has played in their lives.

“The human side is something I don’t think a lot of people in our space have done a great job of, and it’s one where we excel,” said Wealthsimple chief product officer Rudy Adler. “It’s easier to do when you have a great voice; you’re coming at them with humor and not boring them with dull finance articles. We’re trying to find an emotional way in.”

At Ellevest, the investment platform for women launched by Wall Street vet Sallie Krawcheck, Cullens focused on the role money plays in helping people feel safe and express their values, like having control over their lives. That thinking was expressed in the design of the platform but also the user experience, including how many steps users have to take in the on-boarding process, what information they hand over and what the form field experience is like.

For example, similar services often ask questions about a user’s investment experience and risk preferences, and they’re usually laden with jargon and can take at least 10 minutes. Cullens designed the Ellevest on-boarding experience to include the client’s life goals, not just financial goals, and streamlined the process.

“We wanted to try to create an interface and experience that gave her the reins she was already taking and make investing work for her instead of making her learn more, work harder or be better to fit into the mold of a system that ultimately has excluded women,” Cullens said.

Robo-advisers, which dole out artificial intelligence-driven investment advice through a website or app, have been one of the fastest-growing parts of the U.S. fintech market. But that growth has leveled off as banks and other traditional financial institutions have piled into the space, creating new competition for customers.

Traditional financial services have mostly targeted high-net-worth individuals. But fintech depends on being able to relate to young people who are new to investing and may have lived through the last recession and distrust traditional finance. That’s where people with luxury brand experience can help robo-advisers differentiate.

“In the early days, no one thought about client experience; they just thought that if you log in, then you can make a transfer,” said April Rudin, chief executive of wealth management marketing firm The Rudin Group. “By bringing talent that has experience in creating a luxury experience, the idea is [fintechs] will take their functionality and give it client experience.”

10 key elements of a better user experience for financial apps

Though retail banks lead by Monthly Active users, pureplay fintech apps take the lead when it comes to customer satisfaction. With the increased importance of mobile in the customer journey, what can banks do to keep up?

The demand for a better mobile experience for financial institutions is soaring. Combined iOS and Google Play finance app downloads grew 45 percent year over year in Q3 2016, according to a new report by App Annie, an app analytics company.  People aged 25 to 44 years old used banking apps the most often of any age group during the quarter and also experienced the greatest growth in monthly sessions, increasing 15 percent over the past two years.

screenshot-files-appannie-com-s3-amazonaws-com-2016-11-22-10-13-56 screenshot-files-appannie-com-s3-amazonaws-com-2016-11-22-10-14-38

In order to keep up with the growing demand for good mobile experiences, App Annie suggests retail banks focus on the following strategies:

Your app should not be a copy of your website

The user’s intention and interaction on website and mobile are different. Prioritize the features that are important to users on the go, such as account information, transfers and simple requests. Do not try cram all of your website’s products in the mobile app.

Make financial interactions easier

Mobile users do not like to type. Remove the friction of simple financial interactions by auto loading account details from recent transfers.

Prioritize the user interface and user experience

The look and feel of the mobile app should be pleasant and intuitive. Navigation should be clear and simple. As the saying goes: UX is like a joke, if you need to explain it, it is not very good.

Establish and reinforce trust

Trust is one of the main competitive advantages retail banks have compared to newcomers. Leverage that trust to increase confidence and user loyalty with features such as touch ID.

Reward users

Increase the stickiness of of your mobile app with easily redeemable rewards.

Use ratings and reviews to inform your roadmap

Knowing exactly what features the customers are expecting before a launch is impossible. Use app analytics, ratings and reviews to inform improvements and additions to the user experience.

Incorporate mobile payments

Mobile payments are hailed as the next big revolution in banking with many attempts to dethrone cash and plastic. Though adoption rates are lackluster, mobile payments should be part of a bank app’s functionality.

Partner with innovative apps and services

Customer expectations are changing quickly as consumer technology advances. Partnering with other services allows a bank to meet customer expectation without spending the time and money to develop those products in house.

Build off competitive advantages

Though fintechs typically win when it comes to designing cutting edge products, banks have brand recognition and scale. Even when banks are not first to market, they can easily take the lead when leveraging those assets. Zelle, a payment network created by banks, is a good example of this.

Provide deeper insights and valuable information

Banks have a trove of data about a user’s lifestyle, needs and challenges. Banks can really go the extra mile by leveraging that data to assist the user in managing his finances, proactively suggesting products in a relevant and non-intrusive manner, and cross-selling relevant services.

Finance as fashion symbol: 5 examples of design creeping into finance

design has made its way into finance

Finance used to get a free pass when it came to style. Banks, brokerages, and asset managers worth hundreds of billions of dollars issued client statements looking like spreadsheets with logos slapped on. Design seemed to be something other industries focused on, not finance.

But the industry seems to be getting the gospel and buying into the fact that customers expect more design from their financial products and services. Apple took commodity products like the computer and mp3 player and turned them into consumer devices with an aesthetic that wasn’t shared by competitive products at the time.

Now, everyone is upping their game and finance is no different. We’re beginning to see beautiful, fashionable financial products, tools, and apps.

Here’s a list (with a few gag gifts mixed in) of some of the design innovations creeping into the financial world.

Credit cards with personality stylish credit cards

When you’re out with a client or on a date, you don’t want to whip out a lame credit card. That’s so…plebeian. You need something distinctive, something that says, “hey, I’ve thought about how I look when I pay my bills.” Companies like have licensed images and plenty of fashionable options to match your style.

Beautiful payment platforms

fashionable payment platforms: Stripe


Remember when ecommerce was fun but checking out was the pits? Stripe has not only done an amazing job simplifying the payment process, but it looks great, too. Gone are the days of checkout and invoice tools that look like glorified spreadsheets. We’re in an era where design matters in finance — payment tools, finance apps, credit cards, and customer statements issued by banks. It all matters.

The annual report gets a face lift

making annual reports beautiful

Especially for publicly traded companies, the annual report traditionally represented a boring, old regulatory filing. Sure, some firms put a nice cover on and maybe some glossy pages at the beginning of the report, but for the most part, there wasn’t really anything fashionable there. Consumer brands issued nicer looking reports, but the internet provides new ways not only to communicate with shareholders, but also to do it beautifully. Take leading early stage fintech investor Google Ventures, for example. The company issues a yearly report (here’s a recent one) that is part educational, part interactive, and part marketing. You can browse through it quickly or drill down on particulars — like sectors the firm has invested in or on specific companies in their portfolio. Expect to see more communication tools that will enhance investor communication to emerge in the future.

A gift that keeps on giving

give the gift of stock

As most of finance has been digitized, something’s been lost along the way. I mean, who doesn’t have a single physical share laying around of an old blue chip stock that you got for your bar mitzva from a family friend who was stock broker? Anyway, there’s also something magical to those old certificates and a company called GiveaShare make it easy to gift a stock to a friend or family member. There are other services that make it easy to gift stock but this one comes with a framed plaque the proud recipient can hang on a wall. Like golf? Hang up Callaway. Like tech? Mount a share of Apple in your study.

Stock charts as art

Stock charts as art
from Sarah Meyohas

If trading is indeed an art form, it probably deserves some wall-space in your living room. That’s exactly what Sarah Meyohas thought when she painted a series of paintings she calls Stock Performance. The one above? It’s the chart of the New York Stock Exchange (before it was acquired by ICE). In this case, the artist is intrigued that the chart represents both a individual stock and the exchange it’s traded on.

“This line is a self-reflexive existence,” the artist wrote on her website. “It is the stock market subject to its own critical analysis. As the price fluctuates, the stock exchange is valued through the very means of that which is being valued. It is creating its own image, attaining its own concept in self-revelation.”

Bonus: Drink like a (Wall Street) boss

bull and bear whiskey glases

Once you’ve closed the deal, don’t celebrate with just a another whiskey glass! You want something that both feels good in your hand and looks good with your colleagues. These Bull and Bear Whiskey Glasses are sold by a company called Bull Market Gifts where they have, as you can imagine, lots of gifts for the financial pro. My favorite is a replica of a ticker tape machine.

Bonus: Money hits the bank, light up that Cohiba with your…calculator?

calculator lighter

I’m not sure this is a real thing and if it’s not, it should be. Maybe. This vintage 80s Casio calculator fits inside a real, working lighter. So, when you’re done crunching the numbers and the money hits the bank, you don’t have to scramble to find a way to light up your stogie. Just hit C and click.