Design the bank

By Emma Cherim

Most strategic product design students dream of working for design agency IDEO or they seek employment with product-driven companies such as Philips and Unilever. Interestingly though, I’ve been seeing a remarkable shift lately: nowadays, many graduates are finding jobs in the financial sector as service designers, also known as design thinkers or strategic designers. I’m an example of one.

Innovation Centre — ABN AMRO Bank N.V.

From product design to service design

Service design or design thinking is a holistic, human-centred approach that uses the same design processes and methods as experienced designers do to resolve complex problems for clients and businesses. For instance; through a new digital service or the design of a product strategy. Designers tend to have a different way of approaching problems: they often visualise things, making them easier to understand for everyone involved.

User research is common practice in product-driven environments and is often integrated into the processes used. After all, if you don’t understand what type of product your consumer wants, you won’t be able to make it. But design and interaction have only become an important part of the services industry relatively recently. For a long time, financial services were human-driven — for instance, you secured a mortgage by speaking to an adviser at a bank. Your customer experience largely depended on your interaction with that person, on whether they were friendly and helpful or not. But the digital revolution has changed everything. Service providers have had to transform themselves into digital businesses at lightning speed. And simply putting your services online is not enough anymore. Consumers expect services that are personal, relevant to them and which offer a seamless experience. Banks want to meet these expectations by developing a deeper understanding of their clients’ needs. Empathy for these client needs lies at the heart of service design and design thinking.

Fuzzy phases in the design process

It’s not very surprising to find an increase in the number of service designers working for banks. Many of the service giants struggle with the fuzzy, vague phase that forms an integral part of the initial design process. That’s why this phase is often skipped and teams focus on building solutions instead. The risk in this, is causing a disconnection from the client and their needs, which is the most essential element in creating the right solution. Service designers are completely comfortable with these fuzzy phases and are of great value to their teams in supervising these design processes. Confusion and reflection are intrinsic to these processes, sometimes making it feel as if you’re going round and round in circles. Designers are used to facing previously unexplored issues and know that the solution lies in research. But it takes experience to have that kind of faith in the process and this is where a designer can help.

Positivity in the financial sector

A lot of the designers and service designers in my network have recently started working in the financial sector and most of them are very positive about this experience. It presents many exciting challenges and there is a lot of room for design. The financial sector is experiencing a fair bit of disruptive innovation and service providers are looking for strategies to deal with this. New technology and emerging competitors are forcing incumbent financial service providers to embrace innovation and change. Personally, I feel that ABN AMRO is very enthusiastic about these developments and I have found colleagues keen to learn, which is apparent from some of the new questions they are asking:

  • How can current client insights be translated into the future?
  • What are our clients’ needs? What issues do they have that we can resolve?
  • How can I best deal with the fuzzy phase of the design process?

Apparently there is a need for new methods of performing research and for understanding our clients and markets better so we can use these insights for the future.

We are at the beginning

The trick, in my opinion, is being able to pinpoint customer needs, grasping the full potential of new technology and translating these insights into a unique and valuable concept. Taking the time to properly analyse and understand the client’s perspective without immediately resorting to solutions is essential here. It has been great observing this change in mindset and watching colleagues embrace design thinking in the way they work. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that so many of my colleague designers are choosing to work for financial service providers. It’s to be expected that, in the future, banking services will be designed with the same degree of empathy as some of the best consumer products. We haven’t reached that stage yet, but I am looking forward to the day when it’s commonplace for a financial service provider to have a service designer in each team.

About the author:

Emma Cherim, Service Designer/Innovation Manager
This year, I organised the annual Amsterdam Service Jam in March, which is a hackathon/design weekend for junior and senior service designers.

This experience and the fact that I was a freelance service designer before joining ABN AMRO, ensured I had plenty of opportunity to speak to many service designers. I spoke to many “bank designers” that weekend and we discussed why so many of us had ended up working for banks and what conclusions could be drawn from this.