To help customers, you have to ask the right questions

From institution-centered to user-centered design for financial service providers

Workshop on user-centric design methodology in Queretaro, Mexico

Too often we hear questions from some of our financial service provider clients such as, “How can we gain market share and beat out our competition?” This isn’t inherently a bad question — it’s important to think strategically about competitors. But this question focuses only on the supply side. To get the full picture, an institution should also ask, “How can we better understand the challenges that our customers face, and how can we help them tackle these issues through our services?” While many financial service providers have made considerable strides in developing customer-centric products, most could be doing more to better understand their customers’ wants, needs, behaviors, and habits.

For these institutions that lag behind in customer centricity, it is not that they are unconcerned for their customers and only worried about the bottom line, but they often perceive this to be expensive and can be reluctant to invest in market research. Instead, they rely on anecdotal customer stories from their sales force. Unfortunately, this approach to the collection of customer information often leads these institutions to misunderstand the real problems their customers face. For instance, they may miss how technology is changing customers’ preferences for accessing information and the social groups they are part of.

Conventional market research methods rely on focus groups and expensive customer surveys, which don’t always deliver relevant insights. In contrast, a customer-centric design methodology focuses on listening to and observing people in their daily lives and works within market and technological constraints. One particular area of focus is product touch-points. A customer-centric approach regards each touch-point as an opportunity to surprise, delight, and deliver benefits to users. When done well, this approach provides experiences that resonate with the intended customers — driving their engagement and, ultimately, growth for the institution. With a customer-centric design methodology, rapid prototyping and real-world tests with customers are used to validate (or invalidate) early designs and improve the solution.

With the aim of teaching financial service providers how to apply Accion’s user-centric design methodology, we hosted a workshop in Queretaro, Mexico, with the support of MetLife Foundation. This 2-day workshop brought together ten financial institutions, including microfinance organizations, cooperatives, and fintechs, to learn our methodology for designing and developing user-centric products, based on a deep understanding of customers’ behavior, with a high potential for adoption. Participants learned how to reframe their business challenges from a customer-perspective, conduct efficient and useful user research, and use their understanding of their customers’ financial behaviors, capabilities, needs, and desires to conceive and prototype a new product.

Financial service provider presenting poster of potential product to customer.

A workshop participant shares her prototype travel debit card with a potential user. This product would include a digital application geared to address millennials’ need for saving as well as financial and business coaching.

After designing prototypes, the participants shared their ideas with potential users and engaged in a conversation about their lives, desires, and fears. By walking the users through each touch point in the proposed customer journey, the participants empathized with the customers’ thoughts, feelings and experiences at each moment. These conversations brought up questions about the usefulness and complexity of many of the products and forced participating institutions to adjust their concepts to make their prototype more customer-centric — ultimately promoting greater adoption and supporting the financial health of the customer. When financial service providers watched potential users struggle with digital tools or have trouble navigating through non-intuitive wireframe mock-ups, they gained insight in designing user-centered products. The providers told us this was the most influential part of the workshop.

Poster showing customer journey

One bank conceptualized a flexible product that will address customer distress in paying their hospital bills. This bank visualizes the customer experience at every touch point with the bank. The visualized product allows the customer to customize their experience by choosing where to open their account, pick the date and portion of the bill they want to pay.

Both traditional institutions and fintechs found the user-centric design methodology useful. While many fintechs claim to be more customer-centric than incumbent financial providers, several of the fintech participants admitted that they do not have a process to ensure that their existing products evolve to match the dynamic needs of their clients. Upon reflection, many found that their services were disconnected from client realities.

The workshop participants were eager to return to their institutions to share their new product prototypes. As one attendee put it, they were looking forward to using this methodology to, “not only help us to improve our products and services, but to create a more enriching experience for our customers.”

However, participants know that the path from prototyping customer-centric products to product deployment is not an easy one. Within an organization, a willingness to embrace change and focus on customers requires a shift in mindset. As one participant said, “it will be difficult to convince others to center their focus on our clients.”

Over the next two years, with the support of MetLife Foundation, Accion will continue working with select financial service providers to ensure that they are asking more strategic questions as they apply this user-centric design methodology to develop a product, service, or experience. And we will help the institutions tackle the challenge of internal alignment and cultural change, while ensuring that designs resonate with customers, use innovations in technology, and contribute to the financial health of the low-income population in Mexico.

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