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Lessons learned as a UX researcher in financial services

By
Jack Holmes
January 25, 2024
Lessons learned as a UX researcher in financial services

Fintech has revolutionised how people access and manage their money globally. Signs of maturity are beginning to show as the industry breaks into its second decade. Startup valuations have peaked, incumbents are catching up, and regulators are embracing change.

Consumers of all ages prefer to use digital solutions over traditional channels, say Deloitte, yet satisfaction with fintech services remains low. According to the Salesforce Connected Financial Services Report, over half of the people switching banking providers do so because of digital experience.

UX and design teams at financial services organisations are some of the most well-funded in the world, according to InVision research.

So what’s going wrong?

Low levels of UX maturity

Nielsen Norman Group defines UX maturity as an organisation’s desire and ability to deliver user-centred design successfully. Unfortunately, financial services have long struggled with UX maturity. 

As an industry, we suffer from regulatory complexity, risk aversion, legacy systems, complex products and often a lack of customer centricity. These are not ideal conditions for user researchers to thrive.

Unsurprisingly, the New Research Landscape Report found financial services to have one of the worst UX research maturity scores, ranking 9th out of the 10 industries surveyed.

3 strategies to achieve UX research success in financial services (FS)

“I don’t know why they’ve hired a researcher; they don’t want research.”

I’ve said this to myself time after time working in financial services. I’ve never met a UX researcher who hasn’t had similar thoughts when operating in this space. It can be an infuriating industry to work in. So often, it feels that for every step forward you take, the organisation pushes you two steps backwards. It can be very tempting to give up.

When you get UX research working in finance though, it is genuinely transformational for the organisation and the people who use financial services. That’s pretty much everybody. Simpler and easier to understand financial services are better for everybody, so the fight is well worth it. But it will definitely be a fight.

UXR is a team sport. In FS, the team is bigger than you expect.

Caroline Jarrett, author of Surveys That Work, famously said:

“A UX researcher's job isn’t to learn about users. It’s to help their teams learn about users.”

Nowhere is this more important than in FS. We need to bring a village on the journey to get buy-in for research. Never mind influencing the product with research findings. You’d usually count designers, engineers, and product people as your team in other industries. In FS, it’s much broader. You’ll need to involve your friends from legal, compliance, finance, commercial, risk, marketing—the list goes on and on. Essentially, anyone who might try to stop you from doing research needs to join the journey with you.

Tip:

The UK Government Digital Service (GDS) has excellent resources for bringing large teams resistant to change on a user experience research journey.

Case study:

I was working at an FS company on an onboarding project. We aimed to reduce a process that took weeks to one that took a few minutes. We got busy as a team ripping out all the unnecessary steps and digitizing the manual processes. We also gathered user feedback along the way, which was very positive.

Show-and-tell time came with our wider stakeholder group. The compliance team told us we had to stop work immediately; everything we were doing was wrong, and there was no way our design would ever be acceptable. It was a rough meeting. 

We scheduled follow-up meetings with the compliance team to understand their concerns. They hated the existing process as much as we did and were keen to change it. How we engaged them meant none of this came out during our initial meeting. We’d blindsided them with change, tried to force it on them, and generated a knee-jerk reaction.

To our surprise, when we spent time collaborating, we didn’t just make the journey faster; we made it significantly better. The compliance objectives were to increase transparency and ensure customers got a fair outcome. They were concerned we were too focused on producing a faster journey over improving the process. They were right, and in hindsight, I see why they told us to stop.

By breaking down silos, expanding the team, and giving everyone a voice, we ended up with a faster, easier-to-use, more transparent process that neither of us could have imagined on our own.

I like to think we took a big step up the UX maturity ladder that day.

Related read: Impactful research is a team sport with Peter Roessler

Frame UXR in the most valuable corporate currency

Financial Institutions have a wide range of competing priorities. They often contradict each other and focus on short-term outcomes that change rapidly with market and internal conditions. 

Justifying your research activity as “creating a better experience” or something equally vague and fluffy doesn't cut through. As you widen your team, you’ll better understand the organisation's objectives. For UX research to be successful, it has to align with the strategic goals.

A financial services executive once said to me: “Stop telling us how to arrange the scatter cushions and focus on the business metrics.” It felt harsh, but her point changed how I communicate the value of research. 

Tip:

Find out what the organisation is trying to achieve and frame your research around that.

Case study:

I was working at a bank and needed budget for usability testing a new app. My justification was understanding how people would use the app to make usability improvements. The budget was denied. The organisation didn’t care about usability improvements. The people making budget decisions didn’t even know what that meant.

Shortly after, the leaders discussed the next quarter's strategic objectives at an away day. The big theme was “reduce risk”. So I resubmitted the budget request for usability research to “reduce the risk of digital transformation failure from app usability issues”. Guess what? That change of framing unlocked the doors to budgetary kingdom and helped us win approval for a research plan that included 300 participants.

The only difference was framing the request around a corporate priority. 

The work we want to do as researchers often has substantial commercial benefits, yet, as an industry, we struggle to sell the value. It’s essential to practice what we preach. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen to what the organisation is saying, understand its motivations, and frame everything you're doing around that. Users aren’t your only research subjects when you work in FS.

Avoid the research operations trap

No industry loves research operations like financial services. The culture that stems from a highly regulated environment is a breeding ground for processes, frameworks, and procedures. If you’re lucky enough to have an extensive operations team, go wild. Why not?

Just be careful not to spend more time on research operations than actual research.

Participant recruitment, tooling, data management, compliance, ethics, and reporting are all fundamental aspects of any research practice. You shouldn’t ignore them. You also shouldn’t spend all your time perfecting these aspects when you could be doing research. As we bring more disciplines into the research team, operations work can spiral out of control and block research activities—the opposite of its intended purpose.

Tip:

Define your MVP of research operations. What is the minimum amount of operational activity you can get away with? Start small and build up as issues arise.

Case study:

I was trying to secure funds to pay participant incentives. The financial services organisation I was working for blocked every attempt I made to compensate people for their participation in research. I tried vouchers, bank transfers, corporate gifts, and prize draws. I’d exhausted every avenue, and in doing so spent more time battling to organise incentive payments than I’d spent planning the research. It felt ridiculous. 

I decided to conduct my research with no tangible incentive. I raised a project risk to escalate that the research may fail because not enough people would participate and got on with the work. A few people participated in the study, but more were needed to generate reliable results. I returned to the business with my initial findings, the problems with participation, and a recommendation to offer an incentive payment to increase participation. The business saw the value of the research outcomes and wanted to improve the reliability.

They suggested the largest incentive payment I’ve ever seen, and we continued the research with far more success.

If I’d never started the research, I could have been spinning around in circles forever, trying to convince people why incentives are essential. Getting started and illustrating real issues as they arise can often be much more impactful than attempting to have everything perfect from the beginning. 

UXR in FS isn’t easy, but it's worth it

Getting UXR done in financial services can be a struggle. The organisations we work in are vast and priorities are constantly changing. When the stars align though, we can make people's lives easier and give them confidence in their financial decisions. That’s genuine “making a difference” type of work. It’s why I love this industry.

Jack Holmes is an independent UX researcher and designer from Bristol, UK. For 10 years he's supported the biggest corporations and tiniest startups to understand people and build better products. He's chaired several UXPA International conferences and enjoys sharing insights and stories at events around the world.

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