Everything Is Awesome In Banking And Design If We Ignore The Butt Naked Emperor

Last week at this time I was at the FinTech Design Summit opening (and then later in the day closing in a panel too) and I have oodles of good things to say about the organizers, the set-up, the people and the high quality of everything but I also have some worrying observations and let’s face it, it’s Friday and goodness and light are out of character even on Easter’s Eve, so let’s get on with the goss.

My keynote at the event was full of 8-year-old led GIFs and references and sadly the event overall deserves another one: it felt like the soundtrack to it all was Lego Movie 2’s insanely smart “Everything is Awesome” and it felt like it looped in the background for the whole day. (A movie more full of life lessons hasn’t been made in ages, go see it)

Here’s the thing. I’m starting to think that bankers’ cognitive dissonance is contagious and it’s rubbing off on designers now as it rubbed off on technologists before them. I used to go on and on about this phenomena as I think it is likely almost uniquely financial services related: to be a banker these days you need to suspend disbelief on a daily basis and suppress any consumer-like common sense.

This is chiefly because of the gap between what you know as a consumer to be possible and desirable in a digital world and what your own bank/financial institution offers its own consumers is spectacularly big and the realization would be paralyzingly shameful if the dissociation wouldn’t happen that allows bankers to cheerfully focus on the famed “regulation and legacy” culprits and go about business, as usual, thinking their efforts do make a difference.

I’ve written extensively about the above in the book and blogs alike, the Consumer Hats vs. the Banker Hats but I wasn’t prepared for seeing the swap between them happen in designers too.

Maybe in the ones who were now de-facto bankers, the “internal” ones, the ex-designers who had now taken bank jobs and were firmly P&Led and KPIed deep in the belly of the beast. I expected them to be drunk on kool-aid as a survival method and sneaking envious looks at their ex-colleagues still “on the outside”, free to be honest and daring, the ones in the consultancies and agencies.

If you had asked me to venture a guess about the mood of the community’s on Friday beforehand, I would have thought they would be collectively effed off. Grated and tired of the banking sector’s denial and sluggishness. Fed up with the eternal rhetoric about the consumers but the lack of real action. Ashamed about the gap in the digital experience to buy a car or to buy a home. The day-to-day to send a message and obtain access to finances. The seamless way to go from A to B and the pain of even logging into a bank’s app.

Irritated with the token jobs, the fake grass on the walls, the eternal spring of post-its supplies magnanimously signed off by amused, benevolent smiles of “real” bankers regarding HCD as a cute experiment better done somewhere offsite-ish while they do the “real” work.

I expected the forum to be a place where these generally amazing, passionate, courageous and disgustingly smart people would go to let their political masks down and find peers in complaining about how slow it is in banking and how removed from market standards in other industries; where they would gather to find solutions to move banks faster and deeper; where they would deplore how they are brought in as a trendy experiment not given the respect they deserve and asked to replace strategy with First Principles and deep understanding of the consumer.

Presumably, most of the design agencies there were working for other industries as well, so they could see and set the breakneck speed of design in say retail or wellness and that would only fuel their indignation at the contrast to banking. I expected them full of indignation beans and desperate for radical solutions, I admit.

They weren’t that. There were polite, PC, self-congratulatory smiles everywhere. While no gasps of admiration or”wow!s” in the audience watching any of the examples on stage there was little in the way of snark regarding how if we take a step back nothing is earth-shatteringly new or significant at the breaks either.

And in a place where I thought my message would be one of the sedate ones I still sounded most irate and indignant.

Now we can blame most of this on kindness and the forum happening in London where there was enough tea provided to keep us polite but in a whole day no one stood up to point at the naked Banking Design Emperor and say “But that’s still “products”!” or “This was done in 2012!” or “What’s the new business model?” or even “What consumer’s emotion have we designed this for?”

I guess I was hoping for much more up-in-arm-ness and found a lot more conformity and generalized cognitive dissociation. Maybe it’s becoming evolutionary and not having it would disallow any of the parties from accessing the convention that we are giving people what they need about their finances.

I announced the launch of the Emotional Banking™ Awards at the conference and I said I’d like to use it as an honest barometer as only one of two things can happen. Either in the fall when we look at what banks and agencies have submitted as examples of their good work, we find there was a lot more done in the way of shockingly emotionally connecting design for the consumer and there are digital experiences and new business models out there, that while quiet and modest, are mind-blowing, or, on the contrary, we don’t get enough interest and enough entries and the industry has nothing to show off with and we have nothing to award. And how heart-breakingly telling would that be!

At the end of the day, this was the cream-of-the-cream of design, the consumer’s only hope for a financial experience that fits and betters their lives, and all we had to show for ourselves last Friday after 7–10 years of incumbents claiming they care, and challengers claiming they challenge, is louder and more fun colours and if that’s not an emperor with no knickers, I don’t know what is.