Design Thinking: New Trends in the Financial Services Industry

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Design thinking has long been a staple of many industries, from innovative tech companies to retail chains looking for ways to revitalize their brand identity. By taking a solutions-based approach to solving problems and questioning every aspect of the way companies and customers interact with one another, design thinking is a crucial element of UX research and implementation.

Some industries, however, have been a bit slow to come around to the idea. Incorporating design thinking into the development process for products and services can seem like a daunting challenge, especially if a company has a great deal of legacy infrastructure in place. Design thinking is disruptive by its very nature, and many business leaders and investors get nervous at the prospect of implementing a new process that could impact other parts of the organization.

User Experience and the Financial Services Industry

The financial services industry is a good example of this hesitancy. Part of the problem here is that while design thinking emphasizes understanding and empathizing with the user and then building products and services around their needs, financial institutions tend to operate in the reverse. Rather than focusing on customer experience, they develop products and services that meet their own needs and then expect users to adapt accordingly.

Although banks, credit card companies, and credit unions have made a genuine effort to provide a better user experience for their customers, they often suffer from the problem of top-down thinking. The key decision makers behind their product and service strategy have a strong understanding of the organization’s operations and possess financial knowledge that’s much better than the average user. As a result, they end up designing products and services that may be well-suited for someone who knows how the company does business, but are bewildering and downright unfriendly to customers.

Even worse, they don’t put much thought into how to integrate the disparate elements of the customer experience into a cohesive whole, which only leads to more frustration for users. Take, for example, a typical bank. The key touchpoint for the interaction comes from the bank’s mobile app, the bank’s website, a phone representative, and the tellers at the local branch. These services each developed organically over time as new technologies changed the way people interacted with their bank; in many cases, they are still organized and operated independently. Some services can be completed over the phone, but not on the mobile app. Other services require customers to physically visit a local branch office. For the average user, using the bank can be a confusing and frustrating experience.

People don’t want to use a bank; they want to manage their money effectively to meet other needs in their life

Why the Industry Needs Design Thinking

Design thinking can help resolve this problem by focusing less on how the financial institution thinks its products and services should work and more on what its customers need those products and services to do for them. The distinction here is critically important. Nobody wants to use a banking mobile app just for the sake of using it; the bank is a means to an end. To put it another way, people don’t want to use a bank; they want to manage their money effectively to meet other needs in their life.

In fairness to the financial services industry, it faces many constraints that other businesses do not have to take into account. Government regulations limit how much they can do with their products and services, and security concerns make it difficult to provide the usability customers want while still protecting their money and data. Despite these challenges, financial institutions cannot afford to use them as an excuse for standing still. Amazon recently announced its intention to provide its own current account service, which would allow people to make payments without going through banks or credit card companies. Given Amazon’s success in building a compelling customer experience that consistently keeps its users engaged, financial institutions need to move quickly to keep ahead of a new generation of competitors.

Even working within the constraints of the industry, design thinking can still uncover new ways of delivering products and services that empower users and meet their needs. The financial services industry needs to move away from a model in which it dictates the terms of the customer experience to one that’s catered to what the customer wants. Reframing their design methodology to a more “bottom-up” model will help financial institutions to better understand their users. But simply knowing what people want is only the first step. After identifying key pain points and needs, design teams can get to work iterating products and services for testing. This process must be every bit as responsive to users as the initial research. Simply designing a solution from start to finish based on what users say they want often misses the mark. People may think they know what they want until they have a solution in their hand that doesn’t feel right. Through continuous iterative testing, design teams can be sure that they’re adapting their solutions to the needs of intended users.

Although the financial services industry faces a number of challenges in implementing design thinking practices, shifting customer expectations are making it more difficult for them to avoid doing so. As newer, less rigid companies begin to offer their own financial products and services, the competition promises to become more heated. Existing financial institutions have a legacy advantage for the time being, but if they can’t find a way to adapt to the disruptions beginning to shake up the industry, they may quickly discover that their customers are no longer willing to tolerate a subpar user experience when they have alternatives.

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