Published: Brands Journal: How brands can do Christmas… digitally.

It’s nearly Christmas! And I do enjoy Christmas. You know, seeing family, friends, the parties… except none of that’s really happening this year. Sadly.

it’s also predicted to be a tough year for the high street – not only are consumers feeling the pinch financially, but with COVID-19 we expect an abnormal acceleration in the shift to online shopping.

All of this means digital needs to work harder for ever – in fact we are at a Potential inflection point for the digital experience of brands, so what should we be doing?

 Well, read on here for a piece I wrote in Brands Journal…

My thoughts on the current state of Open Banking, for the Institute of Chartered Accountants

I was asked to comment on Open Banking by a journalist working with the Institute of Chartered Accountants. This is a brief transcript of that conversation. Interestingly, we’ve also had contact this afternoon from a business looking to do EXACTLY what we’ve suggested in question 4… great minds and all that.

Open Banking has been called the revolution that never was, with few consumers knowing about it – why has it been so slow to emerge?
That’s a tricky question. As a customer experience professional, I don’t believe consumers really know what Open banking is. The principles of Open Banking, and the name itself, are around allowing accounts to be accessed not ONLY through the account holding bank’s apps and websites. That in itself isn’t exciting. It’s technologically complex and has eaten untold budgets across the major high-street banks, but for consumers that doesn’t convey much of a benefit. The benefits are around what’s POSSIBLE through open banking – true visibility of your finances, allowing for best planning, product choice, account switching, and ALL to the best benefit of the customer and brand agnostic. That opens the door for infinitely flexible money management and budgeting across every aspect of your life. Automatic mortgage switching, maximising your pension, allowing you to put away money for your summer holiday in the most effective way AND purchase the holiday at the best price. This is the promise of open banking. Right now, we’re at the point where most banks have added an ‘add an account from another bank’ button and that’s about it. As such, there’s not much customer benefit to shout about. Yet.

Fintech apps that help users budget and save seem to be the main beneficiaries of Open Banking data sharing – is this a lack of ambition from the sector, or just initial progress?
There’s plenty of ambition in the sector. There have been good attempts to start to leverage the opportunities of open banking, but they’ve been fairly sporadic and often felt quite experimental. Yolt (from ING) has a stated aim to “To give everyone the power to be smart with their money.” That’s the promise of Open Banking, in a nutshell. With the agency I work for (Splendid) we worked with HSBC on a forward-thinking app called Connected Money. Again, this was primarily about money management and meeting the normal budgeting needs of most customers. So there’ve been plenty of experiments. HSBC have now discontinued the Connected Money app, in order to merge the features into the main mobile banking app. So that’s a good instance of initial progress. We’ve also worked with other banks on similar features, so the ambition within the sector is definitely there, and the need from a customer perspective, to be able to maximise their budget, has always existed.

Has Covid-19 accelerated the lending industry’s adoption of open banking and access to real-time data in a fast changing environment for individuals’ finances?
Most high-street banks and lenders have most likely seen an increase of usage of their digital platforms throughout Covid-19, for a couple of reasons. A) Physical factors – the inability/concerns around visiting a branch, B) volatility – many people have been financially affected by Covid-19, and therefore have had to interact with their budgets and financial planning in ways they previously wouldn’t have from month-to-month. We’ve also seen reduced branch hours and in fact the industry has been pushing towards a digital by default approach for years, so should be seizing this opportunity to optimise digital engagement with their customers. But not necessary in traditional ways. Providing stronger, better, more powerful budgeting assistance is what customer need. Not just the ability to add an HSBC account to a Barclays app. So identifying the real customer needs and responding to them is what’s required. I strongly believe that the first Financial Services provider (not necessarily a bank) to really meet these needs will take a pioneering role in changing customer mindsets around what a bank is and what they should expect from their financial institution. In many ways, customers have just kind of ‘accepted’ the offering from banks and it’s frankly miles behind other industries in terms of innovation and digital service. Enabling customers to see that vision and expect more from their bank is the first real step towards customers seeing the benefits of Open Banking.

What opportunities (and problems) lie ahead for Open Banking?
I think the opportunities are in enabling customers to become truly self-managing in their finances in the MOST informed way. Right now we’re all in charge of our own finances and budgets, and use a variety of tools and services to do so, whether that’s access to an IFA or putting spare change into a pot in the kitchen. We’re kind of using what’s available. Improving what’s available is where the opportunity is. And it’s very easy to see the customer-facing benefits of that. The challenge is that being truly open in terms of products is that that doesn’t best-serve the needs of the bank creating the app. So for instance, if I’m in my Barclays app and I’m ready to remortgage, what if the best mortgage option is with HSBC? Do Barclays want to recommend me that product? Therefore I think the challenges include customer retention, product aggregation, accuracy of data. With regard to opportunities, there’s an option to monetise the new, improved service. In effect, we’d be performing the role of an FA – something people pay for. In much the same way as ‘premier’ bank accounts exist right now, and come with a fee, the new services could to the same. So the opportunity is the ability to monetise valuable services which leverage the new-found understanding of the customers’ financial situation across all products and touchpoints.

Metaphorical design

Kanye West loves a bit of news, doesn’t he? And so does his Yeezy brand.

The new (upcoming) website for Yeezy Supply comes with a playful, game-like interface which matches clothes to ‘characters’. Those characters have a. ful backstory, even down to their favourite food.

The article goes into more detail about the creative process, but the bit that interests me is the direct metaphor approach.  Those of us old enough to remember the days of CD-ROMs and early websites will recall horrendously strange experiences in which stores would be visible on. a street setting, and clicking on the store you wanted would launch, say, an ‘inside the store’ UI incorporating bookshelves to choose your book from, for example.

True, this one is a step on from that and much more in-line with choosing your character’s outfit in a game, but again those games are usually situated in a representation of a ‘physical’ environment.

There have been significant technical advances which enable this sort of experience. Back in the CD-ROM days where everything was a pixel-based sprite, each item would have to be created as a visual asset, and systems had no dynamic nature to their content. So for instance, you run out of a product and want to remove it from sale? You’ll be modifying your entire interface code and often rebuilding. Nowadays, you either mark the product as sold out or not available for sale (so it doesn’t appear). And this can all happen automatically.

And UI code has become infinitely more flexible. The types of interactions and motion that a browser can now handle, without the need for proprietary code plug ins like Flash.SWF or Silverlight, have extended to offer experience designers far richer methods of not only interaction, but also expression.

So suddenly the barriers are removed. We should be thinking about re-setting our interpretation of what a digital shopping experience should be.

View the story here.

How valuable is your product work… really?

We often hear complaints from designers and businesses of ‘they don’t understand the value of UX…’

When quizzed, the response is usually ‘it’ll provide a better user experience… and that’s got to make the product better and therefore worth more.’

That’s a fine hypothesis. But it’s not a business case.

To the business, the product exists for a commercial reason. You may LOVE your Nike trainers, but though you might want to BELIEVE they make them out of love, it’s probably more weighted to a commercial goal.

Whether it’s a direct, obvious one, like say Boots e-commerce website, or a less obvious one such as the Carling ‘virtual pint’ app of a few years back, somewhere that product has a number (or numbers) against it. It has a business intent on which it has to deliver.

In order to truly understand the value of what we are delivering, we need to work with the business to understand its operational KPIs and to understand the value of what it is that we are providing (the ROI).

Those KPIs can be broken down into many metrics which measure contribution to the KPI. So for instance, let’s assume a few things about the examples above:

The Boots model relies on a few customer types shopping in a couple of core ways: online and offline. So we’re looking primarily at the online audience, but with an understanding that inevitably those same customers often shop in store as well. We know this through research, and we can measure this through identifying the customer online through their account and in-store through their advantage card. So overall, we can also understand customer value.

Given Boots’ structure, the online team and offline team are probably separate divisions, and as such each respond to a KPI of ‘total sales’. That’ll be split Online/Offline. And have a target against it. So that’s a number we are directly responsible to. We then look to three metrics: Customers coming to the site, (unique visits), Conversions and Drop outs. Each of those will have a current number, and we need to look for opportunities to change each. Some of them (unique visits) we can affect less-easily, but we can affect them in terms of repeat visits. So by analysing the funnel, we need to look to increase unique visits, increase conversions and the flip side of that is reduced drop-outs.

Simple eh?

This means we’d know where to focus designing development effort. And maybe NOT in the cool whizzy carousel we saw on Nike. (We all know what we’re saying here).

What about Carling’s app? Well, that was most likely a brand awareness and engagement play. Pure and simple. It’s the part of the journey to get people to buy. A clever marketing ploy. But again, ‘engagement’ will have a  number against it and be measurable. And you’ve got to hope (for Carling) that the app had a positive effect on this. And guess what? That number should, if % of conversions stays the same, result in more sales.

So the point here is that design and development focus, decisions and outputs should be based on an understanding of their value to the business – to the numbers that matter. And within THAT set, do the right thing for the customer. This doesn’t preclude creating innovative, ground breaking experiences. In fact, if along the way you can prove a business value against something which is outside of your project remit, propose it. Clients generally respond really well to additional business value.

Within this, ALL of your usual ‘User Centred Design/Development’ still applies. You just know where to focus it. I’ll go into UCD KPIs in another article.

So when we leave a project, delivered successfully, we should be given the client the projected performance, and a framework with which to measure the actual performance against that. And we can, to an extent, depending on the client relationship, project this into pitches also. And we find a well-grounded projection of the value we’ll add only helps clients to feel like we understand them, their customers, and their needs. It’s a pretty solid base to be batting from.

Teams: Better Together?

Today, Microsoft announced ‘Together’ mode in Teams. A lot of us have been using videoconferencing software to a vastly increased degree since lockdown, so it’s not surprising to see a product focus on opportunistic features in what appears to be a long-term market behaviour change.

However, what’s interesting about this one is that it’s not really adding functionality, it’s adding humanity.

Working with Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford University professor, Microsoft have responded to ‘video-fatigue’– a consequence of spending extended time on video calls. Bailenson’s research found that ‘togetherness’ was something humans not only desire but are used to, with physical work places being a key example of how humans connect through proximity.

Together mode is a relatively simple response to this complex human processing of proximity, and allows a umber of view types to situate participants in the call to a common virtual situation, whether that’s a coffee shop or an auditorium.

There are, of course, some nuances to this. In his study, Bailenson reviewed multiple solutions and found some interesting observations which become ‘obvious’ when paired with human understanding. For instance, this quote from the article speaks volumes about how we really respond to video conferences:

“For example, he says, if someone’s face looms large in your visual sphere in real life, it generally means you’re either about to fight or mate. So you’re alert and hyper-aware – reactions that are automatic and subconscious – and your heart rate goes up. And in video calls, there’s often a grid with multiple people’s faces filling the boxes. It’s a lot for your body’s nervous system to handle, he says.”

We’ll be trying it as soon as it’s available in UK, because frankly I couldn’t agree more strongly with Bailenson and the impacts of video fatigue.

Read the article here: https://news.microsoft.com/innovation-stories/microsoft-teams-together-mode/?utm_source=stories-pointer&_lrsc=8ea34c79-d438-4b11-9869-371ec5e21566

View the video here: https://youtu.be/MGsNmYKgeTA