Designing for the Human Side of Banking

IANS January 20, 2017 7 min

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Let’s face it: As designers, we have a reputation for being a little, well… fussy about the work we do. We’re known for seeking novelty, form over function, and creative boundary-pushing.

So it’s not surprising that banking isn’t the first area to spring to mind when designers think of creative work. You know the stereotype most designers have in their heads: Suits and ties. Dry, serious and stuffy. Looking at everything strictly by the numbers — including the customers. It sounds drab and unsexy.

That’s why Capital One’s designers have heard the same question over and over again from our fellow designers: “You work for a bank? Really?” But with more than 300 designers working on small, focused teams throughout Capital One, banking clearly has some sort of secret appeal.

We wanted to find out what it was, so we talked to nine people from across Capital One’s design teams. Our wide-ranging conversations gave us insights into what they do, why they do it, how the reality of working in financial services has compared to their expectations, and what the culture of design is like inside Capital One. Here’s some of what they shared with us.

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Money is a Huge, Emotional Part of Life

Ayla Newhouse, Service Design Manager: I think I’m lucky in the sense that my work feels like it has a lot of meaning. There are a lot of designers here that feel very deeply connected to their work because of something that happened to them or someone in their family — money is so emotional, and something we can all relate to.

Michaela Hackner, UX Content Strategist: I’m at Capital One because I want to make changes in an area that I think is ripe for opportunity. It’s primarily personal for me: Until about five years ago, life felt pretty perfect. My mom and stepfather had a company that was very successful, they retired, and were traveling around the world living this great life. But the CEO they had hired crashed this amazing thing they’d spent 20 years building into the ground. That was my parents’ retirement, and basically their life. They lost everything and had to go back to work at age 70. Going through that and seeing how even if you make all the right decisions, things can go wrong, I wanted to be in a place where I could help protect others from things that can happen to them financially.

And when I talk to other people about why they’re here, I’ve found that a lot of them have gone through similar situations. Either a family member had had major financial trouble, or they personally had had financial trouble, and that they came to work here because of this desire to change how banking works for people. It continues to blow my mind.

Peter Lewis, Design Lead: It turns out money is basically a shortcut to people and to the things that they care about. By working on financial services and technology, you actually end up getting a chance to help improve how people use their time. When you start designing something related to money, pretty soon you have to better understand aspects of people’s relationships, or their hopes or their fears, or their tools, or their backgrounds… and those are interesting problems that I really care about.

Nick Remis, Service Experience Lead: Money is such a pervasive, fundamental element of our culture. There’s no escaping it. Whether it’s how you’re going to get to work in the morning, what you’re going to have for breakfast — there are inherently financial choices wrapped around almost everything we do in our lives and how we engage with other people.

Lewis: Everybody — myself included — really needs clarity in what you have, what you owe, and how your money works. It’s just a very, very important problem that has a very direct impact on basically every other area of your life. So joining a bank, while that was initially something I wasn’t that interested in, meant I would have direct access to the problems of finance and the reasons people care about it. And with millions of customers, I felt like I could make a direct and substantial positive impact on people.

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Simplifying Complexity

Newhouse: If there isn’t a correct answer and nobody is doing it quite right yet, then there’s all kinds of room to create things that didn’t exist before. That part really appeals to me. I don’t think any of us really understand how money works — in our lives or in the system.

Lewis: I like hard problems. Something about redesigning the way we understand and manage our money is almost… like a dare. You know? I like the challenge of figuring out how to do the right work and how to do it really well in a complex environment with lots of different moving pieces. There’s something about it that feels like, “Oh yeah, it’s hard? I’m going to do it then.”

Yeh: I’m a systems thinker, so industries with strong regulatory requirements are an interesting challenge for me. I want to break the paradigm and try something new, so it’s good to be in a place where people want to find different ways to make things better — they don’t just want basic banking.

Lewis: One of the things that’s really fun for designers is to fix something that’s very broken, and I think modern money is pretty broken. We’re in a transitional time right now where we’re moving away from the way that money has worked and been understood for hundreds of years to kind of a new way of understanding and using your money. There’s actually a chance, I think, to join and shape something that’s on the edge of a cultural and technological shift.

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Creating a Human-Centered Culture

Jaffee: It’s so important to understand what people need and how they’re thinking because frankly — historically, financial services hasn’t done that very well at all. It’s been a lot of pushing products that people may not understand how to use and saying, “Tough shit, this is what you’re going to have to use.” And certainly, that confusion can lead to bad decisions and send people down some really bad paths, but you know… it’s also a pretty good way to lose customers.

Hackner: I was recently working on a project with the overdraft team; they created a new product for some of our customers which basically says: if you overdraft your account, we’ll give you 24 hours to bring your balance back up. So if you make a mistake, or you’re waiting on a paycheck to come in or a check to clear; we won’t immediately charge you a fee. The banking industry makes millions of dollars on overdraft fees, so to work at a place that says, “Okay, we’re going to give up some of those fees and give some people a chance to not be charged those fees because it’s the right thing to do,” is incredible.


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This project was all about how do we communicate this new product, how do we make sure that people know how to sign up for it and what to do in time and give people clear options on the fastest ways to get money back into their account. The team was so inspired to protect people, to understand the needs and how people use overdraft for payday loans. The whole project was focused on how to help people, not how to capitalize on someone’s slip-up or situation. And that just made me feel so good about coming to work every day.


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