Anyone with enough grey hair to remember when shells and command line interfaces were the only way to interact with computers, or even when computers didn’t actually come with an operating system, will know that users have not always been at the front and centre of developers’ attention.
Today, expectations are higher. Whatever the virtues of having a fundamental understanding of computing, the web, and the rise of mobile in particular, have put endlessly complex technology in the hands of consumers; consumers who want functionality, yes, but they also want ease of use.
The same could be said of institutions in general: faced with obscure billing and slow reconciliation, customers are voting with their feet and moving to competitors who can give them the clarity they want and give it to them now.
One way of squaring this circle is with design thinking – and design thinking means a lot more than prettying-up app interfaces. Indeed, design thinking, a user-centric development methodology is a core digital transformation strategy, and one that user experience (UX) agency Each&Other has championed to its clients in financial services.
Ciarán Harris, co-founder, director and principal consultant at Each&Other, said that financial services companies are not averse to change, but that they are faced with difficulties that need to be addressed.
“I’d say there is a desire to change, but when you're talking to some major financial companies they tend to be slower, and generally their stance is reactive; it reacts to events or challenges,” he said.
Key challenges today include very serious areas such as a shifting regulatory landscape and the ever-present and growing cybersecurity threat. These challenges, though, have become a driver for change in their own right as the old ways are no longer enough.
“Quite often, the regulations that are driving security are making the changes necessary. They have no choice but to change,” he said.
Other than external factors, though, there are also internal pressures on businesses, including from staff and internal teams who want to push projects and products along.
“We work with a number of financial institutions and quite often it takes someone pushing, or a groundswell within the company, rather than coming from the board,” he said.
Despite their cautiousness, the idea of financial institutions as laggards is not correct either. Many have embraced new methodologies and are seeking to integrate them more deeply into their core business.
"In the last decade, design thinking has become the norm in the corporate world. Done correctly, rather than just given a cursory look, it has a lot to contribute,” he said.
For example, one of Each&Other’s clients, an Irish anti-money laundering (AMC) company with know your customer (KYC) technology has seen rapid growth as institutions embrace its offerings.
The point is not to simply introduce neat, whizz-bang technology for its own sake. Instead, financial institutions can develop an agility in the marketplace that is rarely associated with large businesses. And when combined with technology overhauls, it can be disruptive to the market without disrupting the business or the customer.
“Design thinking coupled with re-architecting things or working to meet new regulations coming down the track can lead to great things,” he said.
Other clients have included ones introducing novel technologies such as artificial intelligence into the payment-checking process, with the aim of both reducing fraud and keeping customer annoyance to a minimum.
More traditional institutions such as banks, too, have benefited from the ability to interlink batch processing systems with the kind of instant transaction reporting that pleases customers.
“Things are reconciled every day, but it doesn't need to wait until the end of the day; things happen in real time,” he said.
Often called “joy” in marketing jargon, in fact this is better described as putting an end to the petty frustrations of daily life, and Harris said that this kind of customer-focused work that delivers what customers want and need drives competitive advantage.
“It's frustrating waiting, and that's one of the things traditional banks need to be aware of,” he said.