No Two Customers Are Alike: Building Digital Products for All

Vivek Bedi
Mar 4, 2019 · 6 min read

When Northwestern Mutual embarked on a transformation to create the ultimate client experience, my team’s responsibility was to build the company’s first-ever set of mobile apps for clients.

Research suggested that one target group of advisors and clients wanted a mobile app — and we assumed they would be our highest adopters. Much to our surprise (that happens when you make assumptions), the top users of the mobile app were another group altogether. We learned our lesson quickly. Now our mobile team takes the time to deeply understand all of our clients and their wants and needs.

As digital product developers, I think it’s common for us to think too narrowly about a given customer, and along the way, we make incorrect assumptions about groups of people based on their age, gender, income and more. All of that can lead to customer confusion, dissatisfaction and indecision. It’s time for us to change — we need to build experiences that work for everyone. We need to obsess about every customer’s experience and let that obsession drive every product development decision we make.

Here are a few lessons learned that are shaping the way we develop digital products today.

1. Do Away with Assumptions

It’s easy when working on a digital team to get caught up in the excitement of building shiny features, but sometimes it’s more important to stop and remember that not all your customers need them. Some of them don’t want interactive bars and charts; they just want to see the numbers in a way they can understand them.

Separating your experiences and emotions, letting yourself be surprised and silencing your assumptions is what will get you to those winning products that create an ultimate digital client experience. Our team obsesses about every client. It’s important that we spend time learning about who they are and how they differ.

We shadow our clients and advisors to see how they use our digital products and understand how parts of their workflow could be digitized to improve efficiencies. By spending time with a diverse set of customers, you’ll understand their different needs and can use that understanding to create a more well-rounded product in the end — one that satisfies them all. Remember pie chart vs. bar chart? If it makes your product easier for your customer to experience, make it happen, no matter how small you think it is.

2. Think About Every Customer

One feature we built after surveying young professional clients was a budgeting tool. The tool shows the breakdown of their spending each month, including utilities and travel. Their feedback told us this tool would help instill confidence that they are on track with the financial goals they’ve set with their advisor. More mature clients, however, wanted something else out of a budget tool. They said we could alleviate their anxieties by displaying the long-term view of how we’re helping them to grow and protect their wealth over the next 40 to 60 years. And they just need to see the total of their spending each month; not a breakdown by category.

We decided to create an experience that motivates both groups to reach their goals. Clients aggregate their accounts to view their spending and investments in one place, but how that information is visualized is quite different.

Established clients want the big picture (left) whereas young professionals prefer to see a breakdown of their spending to help them budget and save each month (right)

The digital experience in both views were a success. Both young professional and seasoned clients were adopting the technology and selecting the views that matched their preference. That was the good news. However, we noticed the total number of clients using the feature had plateaued. That didn’t make sense to us, since we thought we offered an experience every group would be happy with.

As it turned out, we forgot about one important demographic — the clients who like to print their information and jot down notes. For many of our clients, they absorb information better on paper and like to take it with them to review on a train commute or flight. After surveying our established clients, we learned 80% preferred a print version!

Now, on the top of every page in our digital experience, there is a button to download, print and send by email. After making these adjustments to the experience, adoption increased another 35%!

Inspired by our client research, we are now working on redesigning the experience to select an advisor as well. We’ve seen established prospective clients prefer we select for them, but younger prospects like to browse and filter advisors. That way they can select by areas of expertise, such as investing, small business planning or retirement savings. They can also choose by certifications, including certified financial planner (CFP) or Retirement Income Certified Professional (RICP), and if they prefer a bilingual advisor in their native language including Spanish, Hindi and Mandarin.

3. Make the Smallest of Details Matter

When we launched our mobile app, it seemed obvious to us that financial information should be displayed as a bar chart. That is the standard for mobile, after all. And to keep it consistent, we redesigned all of the asset and spending visuals on our website, too. But we found out quickly that top users (our veteran advisors) were not pleased. Where did their pie charts go? We heard the same from some clients as part of focus group discussions.

We immediately responded. After surveying our clients, we found a surprising 50–50 split right down the middle on preference for a bar chart versus pie chart. What did we decide to do? We gave them both — and the option to choose!

Clients can select their preference using a toggle, and when that’s set, the preferred chart appears across every client experience from web to mobile to paper statements.

It may seem like a trivial detail, but the lesson couldn’t be more important. When you care about the smallest details from beginning to end — and give your customer the ability to customize the experience — that’s when you start to differentiate your digital tools and your experience from the rest.

What else should product developers do to create great experiences for all consumers? Let me know.

Not all Northwestern Mutual representatives are advisors. Only representatives who are affiliated with Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Company as financial advisors or wealth management advisors may refer to themselves as “advisors.”

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER (TM) and CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

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Vivek Bedi

Written by

Vice President of Digital Product at Northwestern Mutual, focused on creating the ultimate client and advisor experience.

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The exclusive data and insights that enable 15,000+ product managers to win. Subscribe via email at We are powered by Alpha.

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