How the financial services sector got religion on design

With the rise of fin-tech startups comes a re-invigorated interest in design at traditionally staid financial services and management consulting businesses.

The dovetailing of design with finance and consulting is evidenced in recent mergers and acquisitions: Venture capital KPCB’s 2016 #DesignInTech report shows that 42 design firms have been acquired since 2004; half of which were done in the last year alone. For example, Capital One purchased design studio Monsoon, and BBVA acquired user-experience firm Spring Studio in 2015. And this year, Capgemini bought design consultancy Fahrenheit 212.

KPCB’s 2016 #DesignInTech report
KPCB’s 2016 #DesignInTech report

The job market also reflects the trend as agencies are having a hard time hiring designers. “I’m not sure why this has been accelerating recently in financial services, though design seems to be a natural extension to management consulting, an industry that is often criticized for prizing strategy over execution,” said Sam Becker, creative director for Brand Union, adding that design is a logical expression of consulting strategies.

Traditional banks are under attack from specialist startups — like Venmo, Betterment and wealthfront — that were born with a better product experience in mind. “Larger organizations are realizing they are vulnerable to disruption by smaller, leaner startups,” said Stephen Olmstead, vp of strategic partnerships for product-design firm InVision. “Design is the DNA of [digital disruption]. Industries like finance are proactively thwarting that disruption and attempting to maintain dominance by heavily investing in design infrastructure.”

For the money-management firm TIAA, design is at the core of its plan to re-invent the brand for the digital, mobile age. The company has been building an internal user-experience team of around 50 people over the past five years.

“We have been trying to transform from a retirement service provider to a diversified financial intuition over the past 15 years. When we decided to rebrand this year, we realized that we needed a fundamental rethink of our digital assets to educate people on our brand,” said Jaime Punishill, head of brand strategy and integrated marketing for TIAA.

With a “design-thinking customer-centric approach,” TIAA relaunched its website in February of this year, rebuilt its content-management system and added personalization capabilities so the new website can serve customized content for different demographics. For example, a 75-year-old visitor and a 25-year-old visitor will see two different pieces of budgeting advice on the site.

As of June, site traffic was up 40 percent and click-through rate increased by 800 percent year-over-year, according to Punishill. “Design supports our brand awareness and marketing goals. We look more like a fin-tech startup now,” he said.

While TIAA plans to beef up its design capabilities through direct hires rather than acquisitions, there is a broader trend of absorbing design firms and building talent pools to support those capabilities, according to Tom Puthiyamadam, global leader for PwC’s digital services.

Still, one common mistake that many corporations are making is that they put their new digital teams or creative talent into silos. “We need to take an ‘everyone at the table’ approach,” he said.

“It’s not about the digital products a legacy financial services or management consultant can all of a sudden provide. It’s about the business, financial, management acumen that the firm brings to the table, to drive the creative design and development of a digital solution.”

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