Why Banks Are Buying Design Firms

January 22nd, 2016

design-1-22-16.pngWithin the past 18 months, two of the industry’s more innovative banks have made some seemingly odd acquisitions. McLean, Virginia-based Capital One Financial Corp., in October 2014, acquired Adaptive Path. The Spanish-based BBVA (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria) acquired Spring Studio in April 2015. The common thread between these acquisitions? Both are San Francisco-based user experience and design firms.

Banks are seeing a critical need to improve customer experience, says Norm DeLuca, managing director of digital banking at Bottomline Technologies, a technology provider for commercial banks. He believes that changing consumer expectations and competition both within the industry and from fintech startups are contributing to a heightened focus on user experience. “One of the biggest differentiators that fintechs and new innovators lead with is a much simpler and [more] attractive user experience,” he says.

Customers increasingly identify their financial institution through their online experiences more than personal interactions, says Simon Mathews, chief strategy officer at San Francisco-based Extractable, a digital design agency. He believes that Capital One and BBVA found a way to more quickly improve the digital experience at their institutions. It’s a relatively new field, and good user experience designers aren’t easy to find. “What’s the quickest way to build a team? Go buy one,” says Mathews.

Design is only one piece of the puzzle. “Great design is important, but it really is only the tip of the iceberg on user experience,” says DeLuca.

A bank can’t expect to place a great design on top of outdated technology and create a good user experience, says Mathews. Data plays a key role. Customers with multiple accounts want to see their total relationship with the bank in one spot. That requires good, clean data, says Mathews.

The products and services offered by a financial institution need to be integrated. Can the customer easily manage and access separate products, such as loans and deposit accounts? Often, the process can be disjointed, and it’s a competitive disadvantage for the bank. “You might as well be buying from separate providers, if the experiences are separate,” says DeLuca.

Data analytics can also help banks personalize products and services for the customer, says Stephen Greer, an analyst with the research firm Celent. The industry is spending a lot on data analytics, “largely to craft that perfect customer experience,” he says.

While technology can be updated, organizational challenges are more difficult to overcome. Banks tend to operate within silos–deposit accounts in one area, wealth management in another and that doesn’t align with the needs of the consumer. “They don’t think, necessarily, about the total experience the user has,” says Mathews. “Users move fluidly between [delivery] channels.”

Great user experience requires “a really deep understanding of customer’s lives, and the environment they’re in, and what they’re trying to do and why,” says Jimmy Stead, executive vice president of e-commerce at Frost Bank, based in San Antonio, Texas, with $28 billion in assets.

Many banks rely on vendors for their technology needs, but “if the user experience relies on the vendors that they’re working with, and those vendors have solutions that are not customizable, then it’s really hard for them to address the customer experience,” says Alex Jimenez, a consultant and formerly senior vice president of digital and payments innovation at $7.1 billion asset Rockland Trust Co., based in Rockland, Massachusetts.

According to a June 2015 poll of banks and credit unions conducted by Celent, more than one-third rely on the user experience supplied by the bank’s vendor for online banking, mobile and tablet applications, with minimal customization. Realizing the increasing importance of the online channel, Frost Bank decided to build its own online banking platform internally in 2000, and continues to manage its user experience in-house. The bank still works with vendors, but is picky when it comes to those relationships. “How can we integrate them seamlessly into our experience?” Stead says he asks of vendors.

Today, expectations are shaped by Apple and Amazon, companies that have done a great job of defining the consumer experience. While more innovative banks like BBVA and Capital One are making user experience a priority, many financial institutions don’t provide a cohesive digital experience, or let their website and mobile app lag behind consumer expectations.

“We can’t fall too much in love with what we have today,” says Stead. “Technology moves so fast.”

emccormick

Emily McCormick is the vice president of research for Bank Director, an information resource for directors and officers of financial companies.You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ehmccormick or get connected on LinkedIn.