alexandra bagao

interviews

Working at a place where design sits, for now, outside the door.

 

CONTEXT

Interviewing people we have not met is always a new experience and as such, a bit nerve wrecking. Firstly I was really inexperienced, secondly the circumstances varied a lot and I would never know if the interview would be held by phone, Skype or in person, and the pressure of time was never helpful. Adding to that, each person is unique and if some are very accessible others can be quite intimidating.

FP (name omitted on request) was suggested to me as a person of interest by my supervisor. At the time I was struggling with finding people to interview in other sectors other than the creative ones, which I truly needed in order to be able to make an argument around the power design has (or not) to impact those organisations. My supervisor mentioned she knew someone who works in a important bank in the United Kingdom and that he is, at the same time, familiar with the concept of design thinking. That immediately sprang my interest and curiosity in meeting this person.

After a few emails we agreed we would make the interview by phone, which brings up a new set of issues to the newly interviewer. And that's when the stress started to kick in, and I felt like I would go nowhere in life. Because, as most of us know, in moments like that every problem seems to be the size of a mountain, even when they are so easy to overcome.

Well... I was working that day, and I thought I could make it home in time to sit down quietly at my desk, open my computer, plug it in, open a notebook in case everything else goes wrong and just be ready for the call. However, that didn't happen. Work had been prolonged for more than expected, and I would have to make the call right there at the Royal Festival Hall, where in the member's area (which is quieter) no computers are allowed after 5pm. Hence, all I had left was to phone him right in the middle of the first floor cafe, where at least fifty more people were happily chatting, kids were running around, and chairs were annoyingly making noises scratching the floor. In half an hour I tried my earphones, to make sure they were working perfectly, I tried to find the best place to sit - somewhere fairly quiet and with a plug - and to go through my questions once again. Soon after I sat down near the only set of plugs around I realised that was not a quiet place, as the toilets were right behind me and there were people going in and out almost every five minutes. I gave up the plug and decided to sit somewhere else, praying for my computer to hold up until the end of the interview.

 

THE INTERVIEW . AUGUST 2016

FP is a distinguished engineer at a tier-one bank (the name of the bank was omitted by request as well), and he helped my research by giving contributions related to a completely different field than design. Belonging to the group of people that fairly understands about design but works in a space where senior management doesn’t even acknowledge what it is and just thinks of it as an unrelated topic unworthy of attention. In his opinion, even though things are changing in the banking sector, ‘a lot of their practices come from the Victorian age’, where projects would last a lifetime; these mechanisms are no longer adequate.

How would you describe your organisation’s culture? (strategy, values, purpose, employee engagement and relationships, business goals).

The core values have adapted and become more refined over the last fifteen years. The customers come first and foremost, hence everything in our thinking process is about what the customer needs and how change will impact them.

We transitioned from a very hierarchical model to one with more collaborative roles. However, it is now an incomplete, hybrid model, somewhere between hierarchy and collaboration. We have a few individuals responsible for connecting the teams (across departments) when it ought to be a management policy to encourage teams to reach out to other teams when working in collaborative projects. Insome cases it has allowed the creation of “flash teams” to carry out ‘spikes’ (which are a one or two week proof of concept exercise), and this includes people from diverse sectors. However, the process can be rather bureaucratic and must have formal approval.

If customers come first and foremost, what does the bank do to bring their voices (wants and expectations) in?

We often use proxies alongside business owners (e.g. a relationship manager or a sales person) and business analysts. Those whose role is to either engage or understand our business and our customer’s needs and how to address them. In the last two years, we have seen more direct engagement with customers – using focus groups for example. These are still rather rare, but growing in popularity in the last year.

What are the key employee motivator in your organisation?

When I joined my bank, I didn’t think it would be technically interesting. I joined to support my mother and sister. I guess for many, financial security is the first motivation.  For some, this can create a position of risk aversion. Our industry, like many, relies on innovation - but it also has a very low risk appetite, specially so since 2008. Sustaining our level of service to our customers is often deemed as the only goal. This value is reflected throughout the ranks; and the choice between low-risk and innovation is too often seen as being mutually exclusive, when in fact, they should be complementary, if not two sides of the same coin. Innovation is core to providing the right services for customers. The process of Design is, in my view, key to ensuring sustained and appropriate innovation that is needed by our customers.

For many, after some degree of financial security, the main motivation is to do well for the organisation and its customers – the purpose and quality of my work and the health of our services for our customers are what motivates me. During fifteen years at the bank, there certainly have been some years of frustration. However, during the last five years, I’ve seen positive progress – slow at the outset, and now  some rather significant improvements in the past year.

In my research this came as a very important insight because it made me realise that people (after having their basic needs met) want to achieve higher purposes, be part of change and see their companies evolve and thrive. This translates to employees being happier and feeling more accomplished.

Which are, in your opinion, the three aspects an organisation should prioritise to achieve a competitive advantage?

Competitive advantages (and their strategies) take a deliberate process that needs high quality engagement with our customers, sees beyond the strict business silos, fosters collaboration, and constantly drives for more efficient iteration.

This is more so true given the world of Challenger Banks and niche FinTech services, that often have far less incumbent legacy systems and processes and can adapt very quickly, often building directly atop the expensive hulk of other, more established, banks.

We can only really do this by engaging more closely with our customers; without artificial business boundaries (e.g. commercial, business banking cross-overs; or inter-bank efficiencies) and focus on making our iteration cycles more efficient - often by automating and simplifying our journey from product inception to delivery.

Do you think the world is in need of new approaches to problem solving to address the twenty first century problems?

We do need to change our approaches, but I am not sure if this change necessarily means ‘new’. There’s a vast number of great models that already exist that work when applied. It is more about getting these embedded at all levels of the organisation.


What is design for you? 

Design is a conscious and creative process that results in an output that makes our daily lives better. For one of our customers, it could mean a low-cost and easy way to run their daily finances. In a sense, great design is great business. If the output isn't useful, it doesn't make a good business. Design is also the creation of a great organisation for creating a great business. In this sense, the patterns of design thinking can be applied at a variety of levels.


In your opinion, did the 2008 crisis impacted your industry? (offer/demand)

This question was initially about design but because FP works in the banking industry I thought it would be good for him to answer in regards to his own sector. I am happy that I did, because it gave me a different perspective on investments and how the banking sector is dealing with problems, however, it had no reflection in the final project.

It’s been terrible for customers and, in general, people’s sense of trust in banks. Since the crash, we've witnessed a flight of capital and a narrowing of liquidity. Prior to 2008, in general, there was a lack of quality in credit and market risk management. Subsequently, the focus switched to addressing these gaps (at significant cost), which is good for customers and for the sector as whole. Simultaneously, after '08 there was a shift regarding where investors were deploying their capital. We've seen the challenger banks and numerous, small and narrow financial services - all competing with the incumbent financial houses. Furthermore, we've seen new technologies inspiring new ventures e.g. the use Blockchains from the world of cryptographic decentralised currencies like Bitcoin. All of this means that the entire landscape has fundamentally - from simple payments to more complex investments. The hard truth is that the traditional banks need to learn to adapt faster in order to have the competitive edge.

 

PERSONAL NOTES

In regards to this interview my main conclusions were that there’s still an enormous space for evolvement in the banking sector, especially considering design can help with user research and experience, leading to a better understanding of client’s needs and expectations. However, the lack of collaboration and the hierarchical structures we see today are changing for the better, and curiously enough, while re-writing this interview for publishing, we got to speak again and he has brought to my attention that since our interview a few months ago, there has been dramatic change with senior heads of business actively fostering collaboration. I thought this was worth adding as it is proof that things can change and evolve for the better, and people should not lose hope. Even the organisations that were thought to have their ways set in stone are now trying to be more fluid. It is a slow process, and there’s still a long way to go, but that only means there are also infinite opportunities for collaboration and help.

In the end, all my fears about interviewing someone over the phone, how to behave and react, and how to engage and maintain a conversation that doesn’t feel unilateral were unnecessary. The conversation flowed easily and it became more than just an interview. We exchanged opinions and beliefs, books and more. In my experience, each interview brings more than the answers to my questions, and that is the unique aspect I wasn’t counting with when I started out, and it is definitely part of the reason I decided to continue the project after I finished the dissertation.

Thank you FP for your time and your honesty, it was a pleasure meeting you.


 

 
Alexandra Bagao