Changing a 150-Year-Old Bank with Design: 3 Impacts

Everyone loves progress, but nobody likes change

Ahhh the joys of organization and management. At school, I thought these subjects were nothing but “hot air”, and I was so wrong…

I went to a Design Leadership dinner at the beginning of the year, and organizational challenges were the most recurrent topic. As the host pointed out, most of today’s Design and UX managers come from a creative background, and have less knowledge and experience when it comes to organizations.

Perhaps that’s why we sometimes struggle to find a place for Design within traditionally structured businesses.

Yet Design is not the icing on the cake (or the cherry); it needs to be embedded throughout the organization, and this changes how people work together. Here are the impacts I’ve seen while setting up the design practice at Societe Generale CIB.

This piece is part of a series exploring the use of design to rethink Corporate & Investment Banking services. Part 1 is here and part 3 here.


Impact 1: Ditching the expert mentality and admitting “I don’t know”

Experts have dominated systems and interfaces developments for many years and in many industries. This had led screens to be seen as merely the graphical output of an engineered system — and not designed with the users in mind.

In this context, experts would conclude that it is the users’ fault when a system misuse occurs and request more training resource to be made to “educate” them:

Who enjoys reading training material written by the experts? Not me!

Today, there is a shift underway.

As our tools become more accessible, we acknowledge that badly designed solutions cost money and may have an impact on operational risks. And this is not because of users’ lack of training, but rather because of over-engineered solutions.

The same goes for the “I know better” mentality.

We traditionally value such assertiveness. For decades, managers have been trained to “defend and defect”, fighting back any criticism with confidence, and pivoting the blame. Because they know what’s right… right? Unfortunately, this approach tends to push everyone into presenting their assumptions as facts. But assumptions — whether at work or in our private lives — are very often flawed and frequently get us into trouble.

Does it mean that we know nothing?

Now, I’m not saying that we must question everything. To clarify: an assumption is something you think is true; a fact is something you know is true. The difference between them? It’s the burden of proof.

I cringe inwardly whenever I hear someone say “we need to do an app” or “we need to do a portal” without quoting the slightest piece of research. When this comes from a manager, I’d tell them to delegate and get insights from their front-line workers first. By investing on market and user research, we will be closer to understanding real needs.
This burden of proof goes both ways. For example, I often tell my designers that they should not hesitate to explain our processes and methodologies. We always back up the choices made for our design system with research (typography, colours, etc.) as well as usability testing from real projects.

By acknowledging the limits of our current understanding, we can identify the points where more learning or additional information is required.


Impact 2: Celebrating collective intelligence over individual heroes

As Peter Merholz mentioned in his book Org Design for Design Orgs, most companies (including traditional organizations) have decentralized businesses, with the risk that multiple product teams can sometimes work on related, adjacent or even identical stuff without knowing it.

Even worse: a product can make perfect sense in isolation, yet lead to a fractured experience and lack of coherence in the overall strategy. Individuals may prefer working in isolation to claim all the rewards for a specific project (and be the hero of the day), rather than reuse or contribute to something that already exists.

Yet the need for wholeness is well reflected in the evolution of the design vocabulary:

GUI (Graphical User Interface) or UI (User Interface) — Interfaces are visual.
UX (User Experience) — Having an interface is not enough; we need intuitive and efficient user interactions. It is the age of user experience.
CX (Customer Experience) / EX (Employee Experience) / SX (Service Experience) — We need great experiences across the board, not only for the digital touch-points or isolated features.
PX (Platform Experience) / BX (Brand Experience) — We now expect the experience to be seamless and integrated across the multiple services and businesses of a company. Think about how easily you jump from each services of Google, for example.

Developing a user-centric mentality at a platform or brand level is tricky to accomplish from an organizational point of view. It forces traditional organizations to bring together and share capabilities across departments which may never have had much contact before, despite sharing the same clients.

At Societe Generale CIB we leverage on the 3 following key capabilities, shared by all:

One single sign-on for a seamless journey across different touch-points.

One design system for less cognitive load. Once you learn how to use one of our services, you’ve learned them all.

One platform (called SG Markets) with multiple services and non-linear journeys. This phenomenon is more and more visible in today’s e-Commerce. People tend to land directly on product pages now, without traveling through home pages; perhaps because they used a search engine to find the link, or picked it up from Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. After all, you wouldn’t expect to go through a Google portal landing page before accessing your YouTube or Gmail accounts.


Impact 3: New work relationships and balances

Design requires a new way of working within teams, with a focus on communication and sharing resources. To enable this at Societe Generale CIB, we reorganized our project teams to free us from traditional structures when working on user experience.

Revisiting Jeff Bezos’ ‘Pizza Team Rule’

A typical project involves assembling a “Pizza Team” of 4 to 5 people from different disciplines. They do not have any hierarchical relations and you can’t group them in traditional organizational charts.

As the in-depth look on our design website explains, a team might consist of a trader in the role of product owner, a business analyst as the IT correspondent and a UX designer as the design correspondent.

Each of them has their own clear responsibilities:

Product owner — Comes from the business side. Represents the users. Makes final decisions according to the product vision.
IT correspondent — Knows the systems and architecture. Checks the available data to determine the project’s practical feasibility.
Design correspondent — Knows the design system and designs the user experience within the platform. Shares learnings from similar cases across the bank. Shares the global vision and digital transformation strategy.

I found myself explaining this model once to someone who asked: “What happens if the product owner is a Managing Director in Front Office and the IT or Design correspondents are just Analysts?

Well… nothing actually.

This is already the case on several of our projects. Everyone has a very clear and well-defined role, and the lack of hierarchy means nobody can impose decisions on the others by, for example, demanding a colour change because they’re not personally a big fan of blue.

People that only want to talk to their “level peers” or are reluctant to communicate above their rank in our organization cannot have a human-centered approach. They’d be unable to function in our design workshops.

We are designing with, not for.

The same goes for “This is my design, don’t share it”: it is not an attitude that exists in the team. Since the Design team is transversal, we connect and onboard stakeholders across the organization, helping to share insights, and review challenges, to design and code whenever it makes sense.

This, ultimately, is how we can grow our design practice together.

Want to find out how we evolved our design practice to design for advanced users? That’s the last part 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 impacting 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.