The rewards of solving knotty problems

Mojos can be found in unexpected places. If you’re a user researcher or a product designer or a UX consultant or a service designer and if you’re at all inclined towards systems thinking, or love problem solving, or if you seek mastery and purpose then you should think about joining our Financial Services design team.

Our team’s mission is to help people make better financial decisions, by designing simple, easy-to-understand financial products and services.

Choosing and using a risk-based product like an insurance policy is a pretty boggling experience for many consumers (including this one – and I am in the trade). Data on failed claims from the Association of British Insurers suggests that at least one in five of us get it wrong. Investing is often even more complicated. We interview hundreds of confused and misguided investors every year – making important decisions that they faintly understand.

To make genuinely good decisions we need to imagine and predict the needs of our future selves, to rationalise risk and weigh up probabilities. You know – all the stuff we're terrible at. We’re much better at acting on impulses, biases and sketchy heuristics.

Yet somehow FS firms need to help us achieve good outcomes. How do you design those propositions and user journeys? How do you simplify something that’s inherently complicated?

We can reduce jargon and apply usability best practices. Both will help. But there’s a basic level of complexity here that’s harder to reckon with. Can we nudge people towards prudent financial behaviours? Maybe we should make the mundane engaging – but when and how?

It’s hard but it’s not impossible. Here are some things we’ve been doing recently:

  • An investment platform needed a new journey for clients drawing down on their pension – a challenging, irreversible, unfamiliar process that even seasoned investors struggle with. After identifying the barriers and hurdles, we designed comprehension checks to slow people down and prompts that make them think. (Don’t tell Steve Krug.) The result? People are nearly twice as likely to make long-term decisions when using the new journey.
  • A large banking services provider wanted to create a digital debt collection service that helps people in vulnerable situations to plot a manageable path out of debt. We showed how debtors’ past experiences shaped their expectations of new ones, how important it was to earn their trust, and how easily it could be lost. We designed a solution that helped people struggling with debt feel more in control of their situation and make informed decisions about the options available to them.
  • We designed a journey that helps people find the right kind of car finance product for them (rather than just picking the cheapest, guessing what the acronyms mean, then hoping for the best). Instead of simply asking 'Do you need this feature?', it asks questions that provoke people to reflect on their situation and consider their needs more deeply. We know that it works because users said things like "No matter how much you know, it’s simplifying the decision-making process".

You need to dig deep to solve knotty, people problems like these. You need to think differently, to summon a bit of courage to challenge orthodox thinking, and tenacity to see things through. But we trust the UCD method because it works and reliably delivers a payoff – both for the firms we work for and for us as researchers and designers.

These problems are both knotty and important. So you get a sense of growth and satisfaction from knowing that you’re making things better.

Financial services are essential services

People who experience financial wellbeing are less stressed about money. That has positive effects on their health, relationships and work.
Money and Pensions Service

The Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) is tasked with improving the UK population's financial wellbeing. Among other things, by 2030 it wants to see:

  • 2 million more working-age ‘struggling’ and ‘squeezed’ people saving regularly
  • 5 million more people understanding enough to plan for, and in, later life

These goals were set before COVID, Brexit and Trussonomics took effect – events that make MaPS’ targets harder to hit but the objectives more important and action more urgent.

It's a reminder that wealth isn’t – as I used to think – just for the wealthy. It’s about security and wellbeing.

More and more of us are self employed: delivering pizzas or Amazon Prime parcels, driving taxis, fixing leaky pipes, freelancing for UX agencies. Self-employed people don’t have workplace pensions set up by experts, so they need to do it themselves.

There are more choices than ever before. That's great if you are well-equipped to choose.

Often though we're not well equipped. Mostly we're non-experts making important decisions under imperfect conditions.

In the FCA’s latest Financial Lives survey, nearly half of UK adults showed characteristics of vulnerability.

Try comparing life insurance policies on two hours sleep a night and while nursing a crying baby. Are you sure you bought the right thing? Try making sense of the terms of that credit agreement if you have dyslexia and dyscalculia. Can you do it while also struggling with ADHD, or addiction or grief? Apply for a current account without it being spotted by your abusive partner. Invest in your future self while in the grip of clinical depression!

These people aren’t edge cases or numbers in a spreadsheet. They are us. They are people who – not unreasonably – seek financial security, financial independence and resilience against the curve balls that life throws at us all sometimes.

The world is how we design it, and we can do something to help.

The time is now

We’re busy developing our toolset. We’re lucky to draw on expertise from colleagues outside FS who design services with and for cancer patients, survivors of domestic abuse, and people who have experienced a mental health crisis. Our internal message tool, Slack is rich with chat about consequence scanning, anticipating risks of harm and designing for safety.

And the financial services regulator, the FCA, is driving demand for these techniques in FS. It's tightening its squeeze on firms, telling them to do more to “act to deliver good outcomes” for customers and to help them “make good decisions” in their own interests. Its new Consumer Duty reads like a mandate for inclusive, user-centred design – an idea whose time has finally arrived in FS.

We want firms to be putting themselves in the shoes of consumers and asking ‘would I be happy to be treated in the way I treat my customers?’
FCA’s Consumer Duty

It’s the catalyst that the sector has needed. As they adopt user-centred practice to reduce regulatory risk firms will increasingly wake up to its commercial benefits too. In a well-regulated market what’s best for the customer is more obviously what’s best for the business.

The other knotty problem that we’re dead set on tackling is helping consumers consider environmental sustainability in their investment decisions. Let's just say there's a lot of room for improvement there. It couldn’t be much more urgent or worthwhile – about £3 trillion is invested in UK pensions. According to Make Money Matter, turning your pension 'green' is “21x more effective at cutting carbon than stopping flying, going veggie & switching energy supplier combined”.

These are tasty, important and timely design challenges.

We may be some time – there is much unsimple and hard-to-understand stuff to work through. But if we improve these essential services we’ll change people’s lives for the better in lots of ways

Come and help us.

Stu leads a team of experience designers who solve knotty, systemic problems for our clients in Financial Services – delighting their customers and making the regulator happy.