At the heart of things — The role of design

At Common Ground we help small and large companies design great digital services that people use in their everyday lives. During the last years, we have been part of the team at Länsförsäkringar transforming their digital services. In September 2016, the first release of the logged in web pages was rolled out. Here are some thoughts on the role of design.

Länsförsäkringar is not your traditional centralized company. They have a more than 150-year history in insurance with local companies all over Sweden joining forces and later on adding banking and retirement savings insurances to their offering (and more). It’s driven by the local companies and is really like a bank, retirement savings and insurance company in one, on each local market.

In the last decade, they have been successfully pushing their digital services to stay updated with new technologies and changing behaviors.

Login page with the theme of the season

How hard can it be?

The logged in web services are all the things you can do online as a customer from paying your bills, managing your retirement savings to checking up on your insurances. Both as an individual and as a corporate customer using your mobile, tablet or laptop.

At a first glance, a service like this might seem straightforward from a design perspective. I mean, how hard can it be? One thing we learned when working with everyday services used by a fair amount of a population is that it’s a humbling experience. As time goes by you get a deeper understanding of the problem domain and the team effort required.

Start page for a private customer

At the heart of things

It’s a challenging (and rewarding) task weighing in all the factors that the team and we as designers need to consider from system legacy, product complexity, a broad target audience, accessibility, organization, stakeholders and business value. Phew.. But at the heart of things is the designer, with an eye, ear and heart for the users, a fair understanding of technology and a good sense of business value.

Our most important role to play is about communication and collaboration, not strictly design work with headphones on. That’s often the easy part. It’s about making people understand what we are trying to achieve, how it will help the users and create business value, and ensuring that stuff gets built the way intended. And last, listening and analyzing all input from the users and translating that into solutions.

The slippery Double Diamond

One way of looking at the design process broadly is the Double Diamond process map, created by the British Design Council. The good people at Toughtworks put together an adjusted version for digital services that we find relevant.

Double Diamond Process — Adjusted for digital services

It describes a broad process from starting off with exploring the problem domain and defining a vision, from there to detailed solutions and creation. There is an interplay between the phases with the solution influencing strategy once we learn from the users and the market.

Our experience is that often there is a gap between vision & plan, and solution. One group comes in and creates a great vision. Work done. Someone else picks it up and tries to make it happen. Having to deal with all the realities of resources, legacy, organization, and business requirements. The first group is disappointed with the results so far away from the vision, the second group frustrated with the lack of clarity in the vision.

The gap in the process

One way of bridging the gap is to do many small iterations in the early phases where we visualise and prototype to define our vision involving users and stakeholders. Especially in a company that traditionally isn’t design driven, visualising and prototyping becomes critical elements to get people on board, to get understanding of what we are trying to achieve. It’s not until you see and can try out something you understand what it is we are trying to do. Design becomes an accelerator with design sprints as a great tool to speed up the process.

Another key is to have core members on board through all phases. These core members are the common thread that holds the concept together when forces push in different directions. They know the reasons behind design decisions and can explain them to the rest of the team.

Reshaping a service or creating a new product is more like running a marathon than a 100-meter sprint. It’s easy to burn all your energy and resources in early phases. Things are exciting and new, with many possibilities and few constraints. It’s tempting to jump ship when things get too real, but often the critical design decisions are happening in the friction between explore and create. At the stage where concept hits reality and we constantly have to find ways to do the best of what is possible.

Who are we designing for?

User testing and interviews are a core part of our ongoing work with all our clients. But who are we really designing for? With core services like insurances and banking, anyone from 16 years to 100 is a potential customer and often we don’t have the luxury of choosing one group for the other. It simply has to work for “everybody”.

The traditional design approach with personas or archetypes is not enough when we examine all types of users we need to design for. We have broader segments such as private, corporate and customer service, then more granular such as all the combinations of banking, insurance, and retirement savings. Below that all products and product variations. Then weigh in access rights to view and manage products, and how many products the user has and things are starting to get complex. One tool we used is a user matrix that gives you an overview of all combinations.

A simplified version of the user matrix

Although a bit simple in its approach, it helps us to try out how our design works for different combinations. This, of course, does not take away the need to weigh in attitudes, behaviors, and goals, it just gives us a more detailed map of the users.

Who to listen to?

In the ongoing work with the service there are multiple sources of quantitative and qualitative user input from analytics, feedback forms, interviews and user testing. Especially when launching larger changes it’s easy to take rushed decisions when negative feedback comes in. In these situations, the best is to play things cool. We should listen all the time but not necessarily follow exactly what users say without a careful analysis.

First, we need to ask questions and examine the data: What is the core problem? How critical is it? How many users are affected? Sometimes a few loud voices can make you think something is bigger than what it is, here analytics plays an important role.

After that, we need to get creative and explore solutions. When looking into potential solutions the dimensions of cost and value for the users and business is helpful. If a solution to a problem has low cost with a positive impact for a large group of users, it should be a no-brainer. But if there is a large cost attached but only a few users will benefit we should think again.

Detailed view of a customer’s retirement savings

You will never love your product

Someone smart once said “you will never love your product”, which pinpoints the feeling you sometimes have when working with a digital service. As a designer or product owner, you are always a few steps ahead of the current state of affairs. You know what is coming and you know about the pain points users experience. You also see the things that did not happen for different reasons. Sometimes you just want to shout to the users: “I know this feature sucks! We are working on it:) ” It’s sometimes frustrating but at the end of the day, this feeling comes from caring about the experience people have and wanting to make the best out of it.

Finally, the humble role we play would be nothing without all the great people at Länsförsäkringar and all the people working with the service from developers, testers, business analysts to product owners and project managers. Thanks for having us on board, you know who you are.

Common Ground is a UX design studio based in Stockholm. 
The Common Ground toolbox holds research, strategy, UX design, user testing, prototyping and visual design.