Photo by Iran Narges, Sketches by Patrick Quattlebaum

Designing for the Human Side of Banking

Inside the Design Culture at Capital One

Banking has a secret appeal for designers. We talked to people across Capital One to find out what it is. With editing and reporting by Jessica Saia.

Let’s face it: As designers, we have a reputation for being a little, well… fussy about the work we do. We’re known for seeking novelty, form over function, and creative boundary-pushing.

So it’s not surprising that banking isn’t the first area to spring to mind when designers think of creative work. You know the stereotype most designers have in their heads: Suits and ties. Dry, serious and stuffy. Looking at everything strictly by the numbers — including the customers. It sounds drab and unsexy.

That’s why Capital One’s designers have heard the same question over and over again from our fellow designers: “You work for a bank? Really?” But with more than 300 designers working on small, focused teams throughout Capital One, banking clearly has some sort of secret appeal.

We wanted to find out what it was, so we talked to nine people from across Capital One’s design teams. Our wide-ranging conversations gave us insights into what they do, why they do it, how the reality of working in financial services has compared to their expectations, and what the culture of design is like inside Capital One. Here’s some of what they shared with us.

Money is a Huge, Emotional Part of Life

Ayla Newhouse, Service Design Manager: I think I’m lucky in the sense that my work feels like it has a lot of meaning. There are a lot of designers here that feel very deeply connected to their work because of something that happened to them or someone in their family — money is so emotional, and something we can all relate to.

Michaela Hackner, UX Content Strategist: I’m at Capital One because I want to make changes in an area that I think is ripe for opportunity. It’s primarily personal for me: Until about five years ago, life felt pretty perfect. My mom and stepfather had a company that was very successful, they retired, and were traveling around the world living this great life. But the CEO they had hired crashed this amazing thing they’d spent 20 years building into the ground. That was my parents’ retirement, and basically their life. They lost everything and had to go back to work at age 70. Going through that and seeing how even if you make all the right decisions, things can go wrong, I wanted to be in a place where I could help protect others from things that can happen to them financially.

And when I talk to other people about why they’re here, I’ve found that a lot of them have gone through similar situations. Either a family member had had major financial trouble, or they personally had had financial trouble, and that they came to work here because of this desire to change how banking works for people. It continues to blow my mind.

Peter Lewis, Design Lead: It turns out money is basically a shortcut to people and to the things that they care about. By working on financial services and technology, you actually end up getting a chance to help improve how people use their time. When you start designing something related to money, pretty soon you have to better understand aspects of people’s relationships, or their hopes or their fears, or their tools, or their backgrounds… and those are interesting problems that I really care about.

Nick Remis, Service Experience Lead: Money is such a pervasive, fundamental element of our culture. There’s no escaping it. Whether it’s how you’re going to get to work in the morning, what you’re going to have for breakfast — there are inherently financial choices wrapped around almost everything we do in our lives and how we engage with other people.

Lewis: Everybody — myself included — really needs clarity in what you have, what you owe, and how your money works. It’s just a very, very important problem that has a very direct impact on basically every other area of your life. So joining a bank, while that was initially something I wasn’t that interested in, meant I would have direct access to the problems of finance and the reasons people care about it. And with millions of customers, I felt like I could make a direct and substantial positive impact on people.

Changing How People Relate to Money

Jody Thomas, Senior Manager, Consumer Bank Design: I think helping customers with their money is the most difficult user experience challenge I’ve ever had. Everyone is stressed about money; it doesn’t matter how affluent someone is, or how paycheck-to-paycheck they are, they’re stressed about money for different reasons. The more that we can do to give our customers tools to alleviate that, to help them understand their money, to help them feel a bit more confident — that’s just very a positive feeling as a designer.

Remis: What we’re doing here can have a broad cultural impact. With the last project I worked on we were able to demystify a lot of how credit works for customers and approach them as an ally. We helped turn what was an aspect of their life that they kind of felt shame and uncertainty around into something that they felt like they understood, and could eventually feel empowered about.

Thomas: We’re trying to empower our customers to have a better relationship with money, and coupled with that, we’re trying to reinvent what a bank is in this century.

Remis: The writing’s on the wall. In the next couple decades we’re going to have to rethink more and more of these large-scale societal organizations that we’re used to dealing with. Whether it’s a bank or how you get your water out of the tap — we’re going to have to rethink all of it. So the more learning you can have in the space and the more tools you have to use on those problems the better society is going to be.

Hackner: When I first started here, I helped out with some research we were doing on why people miss payments on credit cards. And we found that, yeah, 80 or 90 percent of the time it’s because people forget to pay, or think their spouse is paying the bill. But 10 percent of people that miss a payment are going through real shit, a really really tough time.

And so we invited those people to come in and talk about what’s going on, to have a real conversation with someone who had been diagnosed with cancer, or somebody who was just laid off. We were using those conversations to help inspire products and services that could connect with people on that level and say, “Okay, we’re not just going to penalize people if they can’t pay in some cases because it’s only going to make things worse. What are the opportunities for us to understand, be human, be supportive, and realistically come up with a way for them to dig themselves out so that they’re not worse off?”

(Not So) Great Expectations

Lewis: I wasn’t actually planning to work for a big company, much less a bank. I think the underlying assumptions about the nature of the work are that it’s very dry and that there’s no creative freedom. And I’ve found both of those to largely not be true.

Thomas: I’m sure designers outside of financial services probably think that it’d be reallllly boring; that there’s not a lot of innovation to be done, and that we all have to wear suits to work.

Emily Yeh, UX Lead: I came into this expecting that it would be a temporary contract. I’ve been a contractor for years, and I thought it would probably just be like any other job. All the financial stuff I’ve done in the past has been really hard for design; my expectations on whether we’d actually get any design work done and out were really low, so you could definitely say it’s exceeded my expectations.

Newhouse: I certainly came into this thinking, “Whoa, am I really going to work for a bank?” And I think other designers I’ve talked to have second-guessed that as well, because there’s this perception that banking hasn’t been very innovative or creative. It gets a bad rap of being stuffy and kind of going with the status quo, because banking is status quo. It seems as boring and basic as it gets as an industry, so I was really surprised to find out that there’s so much you could do for people within that environment. And designers get excited about the opportunity to make things better for humans.

Sam Jaffee, Design Researcher: It gave me pause. I thought, “Oh, I’m going to be working for a bank, working on products to basically screw people out of money.” That was my initial impression. But then, immediately, the focus I heard from people was: “If we treat our customers well, we’ll still make money. We can be good to people and help them navigate this mess that is finance.” Now, after being here a while, I’m not sure I could point to another company quite like this one — where I feel like I’m doing work that’s not just helpful to people, but helpful to people in a pretty critical aspect of their lives.

Lewis: I also would have assumed that a company like this would be very bureaucratic and uninterested in the human-experience side of money, and that was another thing that surprised me very early on. That they really do care about working to change banking — to start with empathy and make money work for people.

Simplifying Complexity

Newhouse: If there isn’t a correct answer and nobody is doing it quite right yet, then there’s all kinds of room to create things that didn’t exist before. That part really appeals to me. I don’t think any of us really understand how money works — in our lives or in the system.

Lewis: I like hard problems. Something about redesigning the way we understand and manage our money is almost… like a dare. You know? I like the challenge of figuring out how to do the right work and how to do it really well in a complex environment with lots of different moving pieces. There’s something about it that feels like, “Oh yeah, it’s hard? I’m going to do it then.”

Yeh: I’m a systems thinker, so industries with strong regulatory requirements are an interesting challenge for me. I want to break the paradigm and try something new, so it’s good to be in a place where people want to find different ways to make things better — they don’t just want basic banking.

Lewis: One of the things that’s really fun for designers is to fix something that’s very broken, and I think modern money is pretty broken. We’re in a transitional time right now where we’re moving away from the way that money has worked and been understood for hundreds of years to kind of a new way of understanding and using your money. There’s actually a chance, I think, to join and shape something that’s on the edge of a cultural and technological shift.

Empowering Design

Thomas: We actually get to do the research and talk to our customers, and then pair that with an understanding of what the business needs, too, because that’s important as well. Being able to bring our customers into the lab, talk to them or watch them at one of our test locations, see them interacting with one of our ATMs, hear what their frustration points are or what they’re loving, that’s a piece that’s completely different and just amazing to have that at our fingertips.

Hackner: We can suggest stuff that will empower people, and that isn’t about making money. I mean, ultimately I think we’re the intersection of helping people and creating great products, but I often hear it framed around, “How can we help people?” and that’s very, very different than what I expected from working in a corporate environment.

Simon Carney, UX Lead: There’s this funny new role that I think designers have taken on to help banks think about the way they’ve been doing things for so long in some new ways. With some tweaks, we can frame these conversations so that we’re talking about people, and still meeting all of our business criteria.

Newhouse: What’s kept me on this path is being able to have the whole experience from start to finish. I’ve had the rare opportunity to go from a really interesting idea that I feel passionate about to forming a team around it and creating, essentially, a full-scale mockup. We’ve been able to get real feedback from people in a physical space, then improve that experience and see what it’s like to launch it, getting feedback continually. I think that’s a rare opportunity for designers in general — to be able to see their work through from idea to scaling at a national level, which we’ll hopefully do.

Adey Salyards, UX Lead: It’s been really awesome to work on a project from beginning to end: ideation and understanding all the way to shipping and seeing our bankers or customers use it. That’s something you don’t actually get at an agency; usually companies will come and engage with an agency with their problem already solved and they’re kind of coming to you for execution. Or, they’re coming to you to ideate, but then they’ll handle the execution. It’s so rare to be involved in a project where from ideation to execution, you’re involved in the whole thing — it’s something I really enjoy about working here.

Creating a Human-Centered Culture

Jaffee: It’s so important to understand what people need and how they’re thinking because frankly — historically, financial services hasn’t done that very well at all. It’s been a lot of pushing products that people may not understand how to use and saying, “Tough shit, this is what you’re going to have to use.” And certainly, that confusion can lead to bad decisions and send people down some really bad paths, but you know… it’s also a pretty good way to lose customers.

Hackner: I was recently working on a project with the overdraft team; they created a new product for some of our customers which basically says: if you overdraft your account, we’ll give you 24 hours to bring your balance back up. So if you make a mistake, or you’re waiting on a paycheck to come in or a check to clear; we won’t immediately charge you a fee. The banking industry makes millions of dollars on overdraft fees, so to work at a place that says, “Okay, we’re going to give up some of those fees and give some people a chance to not be charged those fees because it’s the right thing to do,” is incredible.

This project was all about how do we communicate this new product, how do we make sure that people know how to sign up for it and what to do in time and give people clear options on the fastest ways to get money back into their account. The team was so inspired to protect people, to understand the needs and how people use overdraft for payday loans. The whole project was focused on how to help people, not how to capitalize on someone’s slip-up or situation. And that just made me feel so good about coming to work every day.

Lewis: While there are lots of difficulties and frustrations and challenges along the way, I do believe that people actually believe in our ability to change banking, and I was impressed that Capital One’s leadership was actually putting their money where their mouth is. And that that was translating into — at times — some costly decisions. That was one of the things that made me kinda realize, “Oh… they’re serious about this.”

Remis: I’ve been working on our efforts to share more of the tools of service design across Capital One, creating internal toolkits to help people apply it in their day-to-day work. Rarely do disciplines have the opportunity to turn their tools internally on themselves, and reap the benefits of what they intend to help other people achieve. So I think it’s pretty cool to work in that space.

Hackner: Everybody is just so ridiculously smart, and there are so many opportunities to learn; to go to trainings and workshops. I’ve grown more in the past year and a half than I had in the past ten years of my career. I’m actually driving down to Richmond right now to help out in a workshop. If I see an opportunity where I can have an impact, I don’t need to get permission, I just do it, and that’s really empowering.

Salyards: Capital One’s culture is sooo radically different than any other company culture I’ve experienced before, and I was working at a design company before this. To realize that they don’t look at customers as ways to make money, but as people, and hire good, smart people who actually care and want to make a difference, that really rocked my world. And it wasn’t just a one-off, or one team; honestly, it’s not even just inside the design team at Capital One — it’s across the board. Everyone wants to help our customers. That was completely refreshing, and it’s an attitude that makes me want to come to work every day.

Jaffee: Realizing that we were spending a lot of money and a lot of time on building some things that legitimately could really help people out and that won’t make money for us, that made a pretty strong impression. Someone here made the decision that we can make money, but let’s try to do this in a good way, try to do this in a way that’s actually useful and helpful to people.

Design and the Future of Banking

Carney: Banking is ripe for change. The industry needs it, we know we need it, and I think it’s going to take a special type of person to help make it happen. I’ve been really surprised and happy at how quickly this company has embraced change. Other companies I’ve worked for had desire, but no appetite. And working now at Capital One, it’s one of the few times I’ve seen both desire and appetite.

Hackner: There’s a misconception that in corporate America you can’t do meaningful work. That it all comes down to money at the end of the day. And yes, we have to make money and be a viable business, but what I learned from working in nonprofits is that, you know, nonprofits have to be a viable business too if they’re going to survive.

Carney: The opportunity for us is to show the tech community and the greater banking community that you can have technology that still feels human. I believe it helps open the door for us and financial services to have a different kind of relationship with consumers.

Lewis: I think there’s a chance to make money work the way it really should, especially as cultural patterns are changing and the meaning of it all shifts. It’s something I’m really excited about.

Remis: My passion for financial services is probably the passion to change it, not for what it is now, but what it could be in the future. And I think Capital One, beyond any other financial services organization that I know of, is positioned to actually do that.

Jaffee: If you want an honest answer, I would say the financial service of the future — I don’t even know what that looks like, but I hope it looks nothing like banks do now.