Running user research in a bank branch

It’s more difficult than you might first imagine

Jack Jarvie
Mar 29, 2017 · 8 min read

Lately we’ve been working with a well known bank helping them define and design the future of their large branches, the way they look, feel and meet the needs of customers.

This piece of work gave my colleagues and I the opportunity to run user research in a branch, both guerrilla style intercepts and more formal planned one-to-one depth interviews.

During the research we racked up well over 50 hours of time spent in the branch speaking with customers and observing the bank and staff behaviours. As it was our first time running research in this environment we had successes, and failures.

Before planning the structure of the research and how all this would come together logistically , I looked into what’s currently out there on how to run user research in a bank. To my surprise, there was nothing.

Below are my do’s and don’ts to help guide those who find themselves in a similar position.


Do get the staff on your side and involved

The staff are the best way to ensure the research runs smoothly and you get the answers from customers that you require. A good way of getting them on your side is by getting involved in their world, attending their stand ups, telling them why you’re here and working with them.

Make sure you get the staff involved in the research. Take them through the objectives of the research, the methodology, the stimulus and prototypes, make them feel part of it.

The staff will also be able to give you insight on how the customers will react. The opinions they hold will be largely formed on their experiences of dealing with customers day in day out.

Do relax and put the participant at ease, more than you usually do

One-on-one depth interviews for participants are quite alien as it is, combine that with doing it in a branch (an alien environment for research) filled with a lot of people, and that makes for a timid and unrelaxed participant as they begin the interview.

It’s therefore extremely important to relax the participant immediately. Get them a coffee, check they are sitting comfortably, compliment them on their shoes.

Another important element is to ensure the participants back faces the bank. A lot goes on in a banking hall and by positioning the participant correctly will ensure they don’t get distracted.

Do reiterate throughout the interview that you don’t work for the bank

Customers expect you to work for the bank given you’re talking about the bank and the session is being held in the bank.

By stating at the start and throughout how you don’t work for the bank and that you’re a consultant working with the bank, we found participants dropped their guard and were more likely to open up about how they thought.

If you do work for a bank and find yourself conducting user research in this context then you need to create an air of objectivity. State the goal of the research early on. State how you’re doing the research to improve the experience of customers. State you’re not precious about ideas and current processes, state that you want to improve.

Do understand the patterns of the branch

Before deciding when you’ll be using the branch for your research, speak with the Branch Manager about when the types of customers you’re looking to speak with are in branch. This will ensure you don’t waste your time waiting on customers you want to speak with.

When you find out this information, structure your research around it.

Understanding the patterns of the branch is also excellent detail on your insight.

Do observe the employee flows and slot in with them

Before getting out on the banking floor you need to observe how the employees move around the space, the different ways in which they work and what parts of the bank they work in. After you do this you’ll have a clear picture on the best places and times to intercept and speak with customers.

If you don’t do the above you’re at risk of getting in the way of the bank staff. You need to respect the employee procedures, and in which part of the bank the staff operate in. You’re a guest after all.

Do position yourself for the right level of conversation

You need to be aware of what you’ll be talking to customers about and then consider where in the branch to do it.

Customers are hesitant to talk about their finances in private spaces let alone open public spaces like a banking hall.

For example, speaking with customers about their financial struggles and goals in an open banking hall surrounded by other customers didn’t bring results. As you might expect customers put their guard up and skirted around the question.

But, when speaking with the same customer in the same location about a non-personal generic banking matter, they spoke about their struggles and needs. For example paying in a cheque, expectations of staff and the use of digital in the branch.

Do leverage the context of the customers visit

During the customer intercepts we found we got the best results if we used the actual reason the customer had come to the branch for during the research. Forget the discussion guide, whatever they’ve come in to do get them to tell you more about that, or complete that task using the prototype you’ve created.

Customers are in a task focussed mindset when they enter the branch. They will be able to give a lot more insight into their needs on the topic they’ve came in for, rather than asking them a question on a matter that doesn’t apply to them, they haven’t done for sometime or they don’t know much about.

On the note above, the queue to see an adviser at the counter is a fantastic opportunity to conduct intercepts.

Do be aware and understand colleague conduct

During your time in the branch you need to think and act like you’re staff working there. If you don’t then you risk wasting the time of the bank staff after they clear up the mess you may cause.

Be aware of the branch procedures in the part of the bank the customer sees, but also out back, the part the customers don’t see. Ensure you shut all doors behind you securely.

The branch we were working in required a security pass to open doors leading into the back of the branch. If you find yourself in a similar position get yourself a pass. Getting one is a big time saver and it makes the research run smoothly.


Don’t intercept customers as they enter the branch

We found that all customers as they enter the branch were in a task focussed mindset, they want to get in, complete the task they came for and then get out.

If you try and intercept customers as they enter and ask if they have 5 minutes to take part in research you’ll be told no, no and no again.

When intercepting customers always do it as they leave the branch. They have ridded themselves of the task they came in to complete and are more open.

Don’t rely on the free in branch wi-fi

The wi-fi in branches aren’t built for regular heavy use. We made the mistake of trusting the in branch wi-fi to stream the sessions to clients in other rooms and around the country. The wi-fi held up for 20 minutes or so but always ended up cutting out.

Ensure any prototypes or other digital assets participants are testing are downloaded and ready to go. You don’t want to be downloading anything over the in branch wi-fi. Take my word for it.

Don’t just use the branch as a place you’re running research from

The branch is a constant hub of activity. There are always customers interacting with the tools inside the branch and the employees. Observe as they do so, and don’t just be in the branch during when your interviews are scheduled for.

By embedding yourself within the branch and working with the staff you can learn about customer pain points and needs. During our time we uncovered a lot from staff while eating lunch together and waiting for the kettle to boil.

Leverage the informal chat.

Don’t let bank staff use the research as an opportunity for personal gain

We thought we wouldn’t have to tell the bank staff not to approach our participants and arrange meetings, hand out business cards etc, we were wrong.

Of course it’s a great opportunity for them to meet new customers, but unprofessional during research and makes the customer feel very uncomfortable.

We’re here for research, so are the participants.

Don’t dress too similar to the staff

You’re in a professional environment representing the bank so you need to dress smart, but don’t over do it.

On our first day we over did it. We dressed too smart and it led to customers approaching us and asking us banking questions. Not only was it awkward explaining that we didn’t work for the bank, but it also broke the rhythm during intercepts. Stop, start, stop, start.

Keep it smart casual.

Don’t overestimate how much insight you’ll get from 5 minute intercepts

We were stopping customers and asking them questions about their financial well being, financial future and how a branch can best support them. These are personal questions, the answer to which you don’t often disclose, especially not to a stranger.

We found customers put their guard up. It took us 2–3 minutes to get the answer we wanted by asking the same question in different ways, and getting into a discussion in which the customer would gradually lower their guard and respond.

Don’t be afraid to request what you want and need

Finally, as you’re the guest in the branch, using meeting rooms the advisers would normally be using and standing around the banking hall amongst colleagues, you may feel inclined to just say yes and accept whatever is given to you to work with. Do not.

Conducting research in this environment you need everything to work the way you want it to. Ask for the most appropriate meeting room, ask for a member of staff to guide participants to where you are, ask to get in the branch before opening time.

Afterall, if you’ve done the rest of it right the branch staff will see you as one of the team and someone who is there to learn and improve things.

This was the first time we had conducted research in this environment and throughout we learnt by doing. Constantly trying new things and adapting our approach.

Good luck.


Our thoughts as a strategic disruptor in business and…

Jack Jarvie

Written by

User-centered Designer at ebay. I enjoy observing, making and problem solving.



Our thoughts as a strategic disruptor in business and cognitive transformation. We share latest technologies and methodologies to help organizations transform in every aspect.

Jack Jarvie

Written by

User-centered Designer at ebay. I enjoy observing, making and problem solving.



Our thoughts as a strategic disruptor in business and cognitive transformation. We share latest technologies and methodologies to help organizations transform in every aspect.

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