#10yearchallenge — The Rise of Design in Corporate and Investment Banking

The days of unreadable Excel spreadsheets are coming to an end.

The financial industry is in a state of tremendous flux as the modern fintech mindset spreads from institution to institution. I’ve watched the rise of user-centred design in this professional space and the explosion of creative possibilities that came in its wake.

For the first time ever, clients gained direct access to the banks’ systems, and were able to start using the same tools as their internal sales, trading and analyst teams. It was a revolutionary change — one which placed design right at the forefront of business strategy.

This piece is part of a series exploring the use of design to rethink Corporate & Investment Banking services. Part 2 and 3 are coming soon.

Photo credit: Charles Platiau/Reuters

Before we dive in, for anyone unfamiliar with the work of Corporate & Investment Banks a few lines of explanation — I’ll use CIBs from now to save me from having to type it over and over.

Spoiler alert: it’s nothing like The Wolf of Wall Street.

In essence, CIBs provide financial services for corporations and financial institutions, from startups to central banks.

Let’s say that you are starting a company. You are likely to require venture capital, capital markets, loans or debt instruments to fund your new enterprise, which is where your CIB comes in. Cut to a few years down the road and you’re expanding into new international territories and need to manage the risks of having multiple currencies in high volumes. CIB to the rescue! Later still, with the money rolling in worldwide, you find yourself considering the purchase of a rival company, to further expand your services and locations. Who ya gonna call? Not Ghostbusters. Your CIB. Finally, you’ve achieved unicorn status and you’re ready for your IPO. Would you be surprised by now to learn that your CIB can handle that?

If you still have questions about the work of CIBs, take a look at this introductory website. You’ll also get a glimpse of the kind of digital services we design at Societe Generale Corporate & Investment Banking.


Let’s start with a #10yearchallenge

You’ll have seen the #10yearchallenge that swept across social media at the beginning of the year. People were encouraged to post photographs of themselves taken 10 years apart, generating a vast quantity of memes that covered all manner of subjects, from the trivial to the extremely serious.

Can you believe that just 10 years ago the average phone wasn’t smart at all? The first iPhone was out but most people were still txtng wtht vwls and playing Snake on the tube!

And then there was Netflix — making headlines in 2009 for its innovative movies-by-mail DVD rental service. How times have changed!

But while some things have come on in leaps and bounds over the past decade, when we look at how people tackle complex tasks like business-to-business, enterprise, and employee solutions, it sometimes feels as though time has stood still. Many industries — from education and healthcare, to construction and (of course) banking — are still using fragmented and frustrating systems.

Illustration credit: Eric Burke

Today’s investment bankers spend most of their time on computers and smartphones. That means they’re spending something up to 8 hours a day in front of a screen.

All that time spent on disjointed experiences. It’s overwhelming just thinking about it!


2009: I used to be a victim, I just didn’t know it

In 2009, I was just starting my career on the trading floors and getting my head around explaining structured investment solutions to clients ranging as diverse as French agricultural cooperatives and regional banks in Asia.

The technology was already in place — indeed, it takes complex systems to build and manage these products worldwide. But unless you’d had some serious training, you’d have been hard-pressed to understand how to use the available tools.

It almost seemed to be a point of pride on the trading floor: the more complicated your screen looked, the cooler you were. I remember my friends taking selfies in front of their 8 screens, all filled with a jumble of numbers, buttons and incoherent colour schemes. Serious, complicated looking business to impress the outsiders.

View from my desk in the office in Hong Kong

I can’t pretend that I was some kind of visionary. I gave little thought to design during my day job. What would a designer be doing on the trading floor, after all? And the idea that we would one day open these tools up to our clients was even more remote.

In those days, the whole client/employee experience looked something like this:

  • Most interactions between clients and bankers were slow and laborious, requiring manual entry.
  • I and other analysts prepared our advice, reports, analytics, and answers through a range of manual tasks. Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint were our main day-to-day tools, while more complicated tools required several days of training. Clients could only be reached through Bloomberg chat or phone.
  • The information flow from one person to next presented multiple weak points where there was a risk of information becoming deformed or outdated. More than once, I finished an in-depth presentation only to learn that the clients had changed their mind about the product they wanted, and nobody had updated me!
  • And… Beyond our internal systems, we had a second set of manual tasks to manage, dealing with all controls and procedures from us and from the regulators. I still remember the mind-numbing task of entering every presentation I had made in the week into the regulatory database. This was before drag and drop. I had to file individual attributes in a lengthy form, browse, attach, repeat… yawn.

2019: The users take control

Fast forward to 2019 and design has become a no brainer. People are now very vocal at work about their design needs.

Imagine having to go to the library and rely on a librarian to search for your reading list, explain the concepts behind each book, register you as the official borrower and maintain your list of books for you. It’s a 20th Century experience. These days, people are far more likely to plan and purchase their reading material on Amazon, or to manage everything themselves via an eBook library. These modern platforms have been designed for their convenience of use, and that usability has seen them completely dominate their field.

We now enjoy the ability to access data and information anywhere, anytime. So it’s perfectly natural that today’s clients expect to be able to adjust their financial order positions while they’re waiting for the bus.

As this change of mindset took hold, I saw the rise in the financial industry of public-facing websites explaining financial products; websites that allowed clients to view their portfolios and read research papers, and eventually provided direct access to the bank’s liquidity with proprietary trading platforms. And all with the same login details and design system! Now that’s progress.

As explained by our Chief Digital Officer, Alain Fischer, during Societe Generale Digital Day, the picture for us now looks more like this:

  • Interactions between clients, bankers and partners are undertaken in a secure, contained ecosystem, like a loop.
  • Everything is interconnected. The same intelligence is used by our clients and by us. Shared ideas emerge and are implemented faster than ever.
  • This future offers us a world of opportunities — like a marketplace where buyers, sellers, tourists and bystanders share a common set of rules and processes to facilitate and optimize their interactions.

Of course, there are still issues to address, gaps to fill and legacy applications to migrate, but our position is clear:

Whether they are clients or colleagues, it is no longer acceptable to isolate your users on your application.

It’s a position that advocates for human input over system dominance, and for our industry, it’s a real game changer. In fact, this shift has already made a major impact on several areas of our organisation, and changed the way some people work forever.

Want to find out how? That’s part 2 of this series! Available soon.


Did you find this story insightful? If so, please clap 👏👏 and share! I’d love to hear how design is perceived in your industry or company, please let me know in the comments or message me directly.

Visit our Design website to learn more about what we do at Societe Generale.