How to untangle
a knotty problem

Hargreaves Lansdown

When Hargreaves Lansdown needed to create an online pension drawdown journey from scratch, user-centred design revealed how to help investors make informed, complicated decisions with confidence.

HL’s vision is to become ‘the UK's most client obsessed company’. It’s committed to doing the right thing for its clients – to help them make good decisions and meet their financial objectives.

It’s easy to say, but harder to pull off – especially for a self-service digital wealth management platform.

That’s because making good investing decisions requires something we all struggle with: calm, cool-headed, rational decision-making. It’s hard to balance risk with reward, or near-term gains with longer-term payoffs. And while we all crave choice, deciding between lots of nuanced options can feel overwhelming. HL’s clients’ situations and objectives vary more than you might think too.

So how can the platforms help?

The obvious answer is education. It’s obvious but it isn’t always right. Offer ‘educational’ information to somebody mid-decision and it may help. But provide too much, or provide it at the wrong time, and it’s likely to hinder. Our brains can only process so much. And those of us with common difficulties such as dyslexia (5-10% of the population), or people anxious about an unfamiliar yet significant life decision, may especially struggle.

So how else can HL help its clients make good decisions?

Such knotty problems are best untangled methodically, and that’s why they’re embedding user-centred design throughout the organisation. Their UX team has branched out from marketing, taking its tools upstream to help shape strategy and product decisions.

“My team’s job is to hold the business to account – to put our client-obsessed vision into practice”, says their Head of User Centred Design, Tom Moss.

Over the last few years we’ve been helping Tom’s team to integrate qualitative research, experience design and cross-functional practice into their agile squads.

It sounds impressive, but does it work?

Key results

We helped one of HL’s squads create a new online pension drawdown journey that’s delivering better outcomes for its clients. Weeks after launch, during an uncertain economic environment:

Customers are nearly twice as likely to make long-term decisions when using the online journey

Of those completing the application, clients are 83% more likely to choose partial drawdowns when using the online form, compared to those using the old paper one.

That’s a sign that the journey is prompting people to consider all of their options and better understand the benefits of partial drawdown.

Those who don’t feel ready are deferring their decision and actively seeking further information

The team designed comprehension checks into the journey, to help HL clients understand the impact of their decisions before they commit.

Analytics show that people are responding as intended to this positive friction, by dropping out of the application and using supporting tools to increase their understanding.

The problem we needed to solve

The Financial Conduct Authority had flagged an industry-wide problem: consumers moving into pension drawdown and keeping their funds in cash. Rather than reinvesting it to accrue further value, their pot risked shrinking if interest rates tracked below inflation.

As a remedy, the regulator had launched an initiative increasing the onus on pension providers to ensure that clients moving into drawdown could make better decisions.

HL’s pension drawdown application process was paper-based, so the time was right to create an online journey.

Entering drawdown is a significant, irreversible life decision that most of us only get one shot at. That makes it a stressful decision, and stress impairs decision-making. To avoid adding increasing stress, the journey would need to feel easy to use.

But that didn’t feel like a problem. After all, most celebrated tales about UX involve making inconvenient things convenient, and difficult things easy.

There was a different, legitimate concern: making the online process too easy. If HL applied applied the 'don't make me think' approach that most UX follows, would clients lean more towards the instant gratification of tax-free lump sums, and less towards the longer-term returns the regulator wanted to see?

The unexpected test

Of course nobody knew then that HL would need to launch the journey during the pandemic that continues to harm our economy – pushing people into vulnerable situations.

It’s also driving short-term behaviours. The Money and Pensions Service has created a Financial Wellbeing Strategy that aims, among other things, to promote long-term thinking and create 'a nation of savers’. But coronavirus has other ideas. Research by the ABI showed that when restrictions were eased in September 2020, the number of people who withdrew all of their pension in one lump sum was 94% higher than the previous April, when the country had been in full lockdown.

Of course short-term behaviours aren’t always wrong. In this context, what is a good outcome for any given client? We shouldn't make assumptions.

It’s incumbent on financial services firms to rise to these challenges – to help consumers, not to make things harder for them. The regulator, the financial press and the markets are all watching intently.

And that’s just what we’re helping HL to do. While it was created before the current crisis hit, the journey we designed together is empowering HL clients to make informed decisions. And it’s standing up to an unexpected test.

From the very start cx helped us by asking the hard questions, challenging our assumptions and preconceptions - mapping our customer journeys to fully understand the challenges and opportunities. They quickly became a valuable part of the team, and helped us build and embed capabilities within our own teams – leading to a great outcome for us and our clients
Chris Worle
Chief Digital Officer, Hargreaves Lansdown

The secret to delegation

It’s hard to trust others to solve problems you’re accountable for fixing. The higher the stakes, and the clearer the accountability, the harder delegation becomes. You may have felt something similar yourself.

The trap here is that the knottier the problem, the more likely you are to prescribe the wrong solution – because you probably don’t have all of the necessary information.

But the key to delegation is really just confidence. And in this situation there’s a surprisingly simple way to get hold of the stuff: first-hand exposure to user research.

The project’s sponsors had joined the squad to observe discovery research that exposed the range of needs, emotions and questions that arise in people approaching retirement.

The experience map that emerged revealed unexpected insights, and built a shared understanding of the important problems to solve.

Getting that research right built alignment and momentum, says Senior Product Manager, Stuart East: "It really started to drive understanding across the business. It tied it all together.”

And importantly, it showed how an iterative, user-centred approach could lead HL methodically towards an effective online journey and supporting service. “The experience map helped people from marketing, helpdesk and ops to understand clients’ pain points and realise how they could contribute.” says Stuart.

"It takes a skilled researcher to ask the right questions but that's only half the job. It's equally important to make sense of the data, and distil it into something that others can understand." Stuart East,
Senior Product Owner, Hargreaves Lansdown

Designing for outcomes not just experience

Confidence was growing, but we still needed to address the ‘too easy’ problem. You can understand the concern – ever had a great experience while managing to make a regrettable decision?

When designing essential services, transient experience comes second to – in regulatory parlance – ‘good outcomes’. Success metrics should represent the ownership and use of the product, the value derived from it, not just how painless it is to buy.

Helping consumers to achieve their financial objectives can mean doing things that seem counterintuitive. Is slowing people down ‘good UX’? Sometimes, yes.

Usability testing helped our joint team to design a flow that felt intuitive to use and matched client expectations. But crucially, we introduced positive friction to slow people down at key moments.

We added comprehension checks that require users to reflect on whether they really understand the impact of the decisions they’re making. Rather than overwhelming users with ‘educational’ information and adding pressure to the decision, these just-in-time prompts nudge people out of the application flow to can consider things at their own pace. To help, the journey highlights a set of supporting tools that clients can use to explore their own needs and better understand the options available.

  • It focuses the mind, I know things now that I didn’t know before
  • I like that it challenges you to check you’ve done the right thing

When we tested these designs with users, fears about the digital perils of ease and convenience subsided. We could see that these techniques would help people make considered decisions.

Operational gains

While HL's primary focus was getting the right outcomes for clients, they feared that making clients think would result in extra load on their operations team. But the results speak for themselves:

60% of applications are made online
62% reduction in error rates (issues requiring helpdesk intervention)
What was a particularly painful process for both clients and Helpdesk agents, is now a clean and simple journey that will lead to better conversations, greatly reduced call times and improved colleague NPS
HL pensions helpdesk team leader


1 Knotty problems are best solved when you delegate to teams to make decisions methodically, guided by qualitative research.
2 Close collaboration brings the best out of everyone, and builds a shared understanding of the path forward.
3 Like the comprehension checks we provided for HL clients, user-centred design adds positive friction to the delivery process, and leads to better outcomes.

It's time for a different approach to design in financial services

Instead of focusing on transient experiences, let's design for longer-term outcomes.

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