5 years in digital banking, 5 learnings, 5 challenges
It’s 5 years since I joined ‘the UK’s first digital banking graduate scheme’. A lot has changed in that time, and I’ve also learnt a bucket load. With the extra time afforded by this s**t pickle of a year, I thought it would be a good time to reflect and share. Hopefully this lands somewhere in the vacuum of people I’m connected with, and maybe even beyond.
1. It’s transformation, stupid
It’s called transformation for a reason. Taking stability for granted in retail banking is dangerous now, when consumer behaviour and profitability is at the whim of pandemics (touch wood, singular), interest rates and rapidly changing technologies.
History shows that companies who invest in themselves to adapt and get ahead of changing consumer behaviour and new technologies, tend to adapt, survive and often thrive.
The same should be said for individuals who work in change or transformation. It’s common for these folk to talk about things like FTE reduction (cutting jobs in normal speak). They are then also surprised when their own job changes or is put at risk of redundancy.
The challenge in the future will be how comfortable people are continually re-inventing an aspect of their working persona.
Most of the people whose skills are no longer relevant, won’t be the ones best placed to take up the roles that new technologies are creating.
How many branch staff or head office middle management, will have the time afforded, appetite or aptitude to re-train in cloud computing, AI and data science?
I’ve just finished reading ‘A world without work’ by Daniel Susskind, a fascinating exploration of how AI is ushering in this real possibility of not enough work to go around for many traditionally white collar workers, not just repetitive service roles. This is a challenge all industries will have to grapple with soon.
This is a hard egg to suck, but I try to keep on top of the latest design software, methods and tools available. The online design community is awash with this stuff.
2. Trust can be lost quickly in financial services, but it takes time to gain
Going back 20 or 30 years, big banks were viewed as incredibly trusted, but the global financial crisis and the pace of technological change has opened the door to new entrants, into previously protected spaces.
However, it takes time to build enough trust to actively encourage behaviour change and to cut through consumer apathy. Covid-19 has accelerated the move to digital, forcing the more reluctant to reduce their use of cash and reliance on their local branch. It’s even helped boost some players into unexpected profitability, such as Starling, who have benefitted from increased business lending.
However, I still be believe most people are inherently lazy. And shock, most people aren’t as excited by new regulation like Open Banking as those of us who work in finance are.
The big challenge in the next couple of years will be understanding whether true trust can be established in new players such as Monzo and Starling, and whether big tech has the appetite and required trust itself, to take on the customer experience layer in the future of banking. If most people are a bit lazy, then a front end seamlessly offered up by the likes of Apple, Google or Amazon for a more personalised experience, could be pretty appealing.
The old cliche of ‘you are not your user’ needs to be repeated more often than it probably should. I try to remind myself that most people aren’t playing around with the navigation and latest features on offer in their banking apps.
3. Design isn’t a golden bullet
You can teach methods, share tools and run design sprints. But you can’t teach judgement, timing and the ability to read the [virtual] room.
If you’re running an ideation exercise, there are some helpful checks to run; 1) Does anyone here actually have skin in the game? 2) Have we timed this right? 3) What are we actually prioritising our ideas against, rather than an arbitrary quadrant of desirability vs. feasibility?
I don’t know of many other disciplines who toot their own trumpet as much as designers. Saying that, I don’t know many other disciplines where the barrier to entry appears so low, that anyone can have an opinion. Maybe football journalism or punditry?
This is why the biggest challenge I foresee is the stewardship of design; if a design lead isn’t actually designing, why is their opinion and team management any different from that of a product owner or marketeer? How can design establish long term trust, that it deserves and requires dedicated leadership roles in big organisations? When many product owners enjoy taking on design leadership themselves, how can designers prove they are worthy partners in these roles?
As I take on more leadership roles on projects, I’m conscious of carrying on being a practitioner too. It doesn’t necessarily work in football, but in design I like the idea of ‘player-coach’ rather than manager.
4. Be wary of strategy sooth-sayers and matrix-mediums
I don’t think there is an award night for foresight and strategy folks to look back at the predictions they make every 5 years and assess their success retrospectively, but if there was, I can’t imagine there would be many given out this year, even before Covid.
Do experts in the future really exist? Not to sound too much like Michael Gove… but if they’re from an external party advising you, do they really understand the nuance and the detail of what happens on the ground? If they’re internal, have they had the external experience to mix up their surroundings and take a step backwards, to really assess and compare?
Looking back 5 years ago, when digital was still a buzzword, fintech was the new kid on the block and Monzo was called Mondo, I would be hard pressed to remember any disruptive predictions that have come true quite yet. In B2C, it looks like there is still a generally low adoption of Open Banking propositions from the average joe. In B2B, PISP (payment initiation service providers) are probably doing better, with new payments propositions popping up all the time.
When looking into the future, where do we look for reliable predictions? Who do we rely upon? I’ve found it interesting recently exploring some of the insights from Glimpse; a software company that culls millions of online signals to identify surging trends. They track every keyword that is used online above a specific keyword threshold, before analysing the usage frequency across platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, Amazon, Google, Instagram.
Maybe in a world where there is so much data, and more and more is becoming open sourced, we’re better off exploring this data ourselves and making our own predictions?
Rather than making predictions, I prefer to be comfortable with different outcomes. Planning for a few different eventualities generally feels preferable.
5. Fintech that doesn’t feel like fintech to normal people, might be the ultimate winner
Most people aren’t bothered about the in’s and out’s of banking regulation, whether their bank runs on a new technology stack or whether the app they use has all 15 of the top features a benchmarking service recommends they should have.
What they do care about, is whether their chosen means of interaction feels as easy as they would expect it to; How easily can I get help when I’m continually in debt? How easily can I put money aside for a future holiday? How easily can I buy this dress and send it back if I want to? How easily can I buy shares in a cause I believe in? How easily can I split my takeaway bill with my friend or partner? How easily can I get in touch with someone, when something goes wrong? How easily can I see how much my minimum payments are for my credit card?
We know people benchmark their experience of one service, with their experience using another, often in a divergent industry.
Social interaction is now pervading every aspect of finance, not long after it had trickled through other industries beforehand.
Just look at the ‘story-fication’ of almost every app experience these days; Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and now Twitter all have this feature.
From Venmo in payments, Robinhood, Freetrade and Trading 212 in investing, Klarna and Clearpay in Payments, Monzo, Starling and Revolut to a lesser extent in consumer banking. Whilst Kroo, a UK based challenger bank, look like they’ve taken ‘social’ to the core of their proposition. The demand is there but social hasn’t quite peaked its potential.
Finance is increasingly moving closer to customer context, and platform businesses are often powering these new interactions. The big challenge I see for many providers and big banks, is how they can take advantage of this move themselves, offering up contextual experiences and new revenue generating services.
In my design and research work, I try to be conscious of where people spend their time and what they’re likely to engage with. So many great ideas or features fail because they’re hidden or mis-placed.
Who knows what the next 5 years will hold, when the last 5 years was so unpredictable.
Some things I believe though are constant;
- The need for greater emotional intelligence and humbleness within design and product leadership.
- The need to design with and not for people, to truly understand where the customer context (as mentioned above) actually is.
- The certainty of uncertainty when working in transformation, change, service and product design or management.
These are three things I will be looking to take into 2021 with a sense of excitement given the uncertainty, rather than trepidation. Easier said than done.