UX design for finance is secretly awesome

Finance is ripe with UX design opportunities. The possibilities are simply lost in confusing language, lots of numbers, and dense charts on screens.

For the past four years I’ve been designing software for investment banks. I wanted to share some thoughts from working in this space, in the hope of showing you the opportunities and challenges of financial UX design.

The cobbler’s children have no shoes

There have been many times where I worked with users on the same trading desk, and each of those users worked a little bit differently (more confusing language — a ‘desk’ is just a team of people). These desks are groups of skilled professionals. They are expert users in the truest sense and know their way around all aspects of their business.

As much as they are highly-skilled experts and professionals, many of them have never received attention or support around the tools they use. As a result, they are left with broken, disconnected processes. Their tasks are often patch-worked and duct-taped together with old software, an Excel spreadsheet, and five phone calls.

5 screens, a massive phone console, notebooks, and at least two mugs of coffee. “THREE MORE COFFEES STAT”

All of these workflows, processes, and tools being used have evolved, have been added-to/changed over time. Working with users to take a step back from their patchwork of processes allows you to help build a meaningful, useful set of tools. It gets users thinking about their workflow in new and exciting ways, and never fails to uncover unexpected results. You share the excitement and focus of building something useful with your users.

To design for finance is to design for business

Design teams can apply their focus in a couple of different ways. Thinking about design as a hierarchy, one starts with thinking about a product’s usability — does this thing function as a product? Can a user use it?

From there, a designer might start thinking about usefulness — does this thing help accomplish the goal that my user set out to accomplish? Will he or she use it?

Finally, a designer will think about how the product satisfies a business goal — does this thing help my client make money? Does this thing contribute to the success of my users’ business?

From Braden Kowitz’s presentation for FirstMark’s Design Driven event in New York, July 2016

To be a successful finance-focused user experience designer, we need to care about everything from surface-level usability all the way to core business needs.

Giving a shit about design means giving a shit about the business.

I’ve pored over financial documentation and asked users about what success means to them. Tying features and concepts to improved business processes/results are a huge win, ensuring the design work you do is valuable.

100% of your users, all in one room

The scale and types of problems one deals with in the financial industry are unique. There have been times where I have been in a room demonstrating or testing a new design with 20 users, and those users represent 100% of my target user-base. The types of software being designed is specific and bespoke. The goals are very different as a result.

In finance, software’s success is not determined by clicks or eyeballs, but rather by the speed and efficiency of a user as he or she navigates the tools. If a user is able to measurably perform his or her tasks with greater speed and precision, while reducing errors, that is a successful design.

As a result, the skill-set a designer needs is focused around research and iteration. It’s hard to get it right the first time, and the key is to show consistent and ongoing value to your users. I have found that bringing users into the process with me is a valuable way to open their eye to the possibility of applying user-centeredness to their software, and allows me to get more access to my users to be able to validate ideas and assumptions.

Context is key

The context in which traders are using software is also different than a consumer application. Traders often have multiple screens up at any given time, and are in the middle of many conversations. Successful design for finance is understanding the user’s context, and delivering a solution which matches their mental model and serves their needs.

A typical trading floor.

I am reminded of this presentation by my colleague Amir Dotan. There are many considerations around context which one needs to take into account. This includes number of screens, systems being used, and communication methods (email, phone, IM, good ol’ fashioned yelling).

Delivering the right information, at the right level of detail, at the right time is paramount to the success of the software one designs in finance.

The big secret (shh!!!)

So there’s an underlying secret to success, which I might get into trouble for sharing.

The truth is… financial concepts seem daunting. But the concepts are learnable. They’re detailed, but they’re understandable.

At its core, being a designer in the financial industry does not mean you need to be an expert in all things finance. Rather, it’s about understanding, identifying and capturing workflows, transformations, and exceptions! Hint hint — These are all things that designers are good at.

I’m reminded about that great scene in The Big Short, in which Margot Robbie explains mortgage-backed securities.

There are plenty of resources that explain financial concepts just as clearly as Ms. Robbie does — my favorite is Investopedia, but even Reddit can be helpful.

This is all to say that you shouldn’t feel intimidated about finance. There are enough resources out there that you can pick it up.

And the other big secret? It’s actually really interesting and fun. Designers thrive in the realm of ambiguity — we make meaning and order out of chaos. There are few industries more suited for design ingenuity than finance.

The hardest part is keeping true to yourself as a designer, and knowing which methods, techniques and approaches you will use to be successful.

It’s rewarding to design for industries that are not typically design-focused

Something which has kept me motivated and excited throughout my design career is to identify and design for users that don’t have much exposure to designers, and design methods.

In finance, this is definitely the case. You see a direct impact from the work that you do, you see users’ eyes light up when they test out a prototype. Whether it’s finance, retail, aerospace, or otherwise, it’s inspiring to continuously try to build great tools to enhance peoples’ work.

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I am a user experience designer from New York. I grew up in Toronto. I’m also the co-founder of SIBlings, a group of designers and developers that design and bring crazy ideas to life. We’re the co-creators of Emoji Salad, an emoji Pictionary SMS game that makes friends out of enemies and enemies out of friends.