Fidelity’s websites account for the vast majority of interactions our company has with its customers. We have always invested heavily in usability research and online interaction design, and our customer-facing websites have been continually refined over the past 15 years — and as Fidelity’s chief customer experience officer, I’m part of a team that helps ensure that our websites continue to drive high customer satisfaction scores.
For the latest set of improvements to our website, Fidelity sought outside help from an unusual source: students at the Stanford University d.school (formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design). At the d.school, students learn to use the practice of design thinking to solve big problems, and they’ve helped us adopt this methodology to define, validate, and address our own challenges in a new and highly effective way.
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is rooted in the principle that to design a great product or service, one must develop empathy for and deep insight into the customer’s behaviors and needs. Teams spend time with customers from the beginning of the development process, asking questions, rapidly generating multiple ideas, and testing them. The point is not to validate or prove an idea “right,” but to get instant, unfiltered reaction. Design thinking promotes a culture of prototyping and a bias toward action. These “low resolution” prototypes can be as rough as a napkin sketch or a model built with pipe cleaners.
Design thinking in action
A group of d.school students were using design thinking to tackle problems like providing better water supplies for sub-Saharan Africa or designing low-cost incubators for remote villages worldwide. In our industry, there are also complex challenges that affect millions of people. We presented two questions as the project for a class titled “Creating Infectious Action”: How do you get workers to save money for the future? How do you get younger people to do something that they know is good for them, yet for which the positive payback is many years away?
In a matter of weeks, student teams conducted research, created prototypes, and tested numerous concepts. The ideas included “future visualizers,” candy bars for savers, grandparent graduation gift packs, dynamic charts to illustrate savings progress, and a financial education program for kindergartners. The students found that even the brightest graduate students are turned off by complexity, financial jargon, and fine print; Gen Y-ers, surrounded by tangible and virtual media, tend to lack reward recognition for long-term behavior and need motivation; and invariably, baby boomers not only remember their first savings-bank passbook, but have saved it and can find it to show you.
Ultimately, Fidelity used images of a 1970s bank passbook to create new ways to illustrate balance history and performance data on its website, giving customers positive feedback and providing motivation for achieving their savings and investment goals.
After our experience with the class — and inspired by the quality of ideas and the speed with which they were generated by the students — we brought the practice of design thinking back to Fidelity. Simply put, rather than developing and then testing, we now begin projects with customers, to incorporate their thinking earlier and more effectively.
We’ve learned that customers give better, more genuine feedback with low-resolution prototypes and an explicit invitation to contribute thoughts to the development process. Designs and project plans can then be adjusted or scrapped before the team has spent significant amounts of time and resources polishing a product offering. Perhaps most important, this methodology avoids the model of inviting customers to review a mockup website that is more or less fully functional, which leaves customers feeling as if their input is largely an afterthought.
When a Fidelity team met with a group of its workplace-services customers to understand how they used their employer-offered Fidelity benefits, the team brought blank paper and markers instead of PowerPoint slides and slick Photoshopped pictures. “When was the last time that you interacted with your benefits? How was the experience? What was good? What could be better? Why? Why? Why?” At one point during this session, we asked customers to formulate their benefits needs as a Craigslist ad and were floored by the directness, humor, and clarity of their responses. The customers’ verdict: “That was the best five-hour meeting we’ve ever been to.”
In another session, customers and Fidelity team members broke into groups and generated three different low-resolution paper prototypes:
- “What if benefits enrollment worked like a navigation system?”
- “What if benefits looked like an airplane cockpit?”
- “What if benefits enrollment was a perfect first date?”
We let the customers react without offering editorial commentary, remaining open to hearing reactions. At the end of the session, the Fidelity team emerged not only with a far superior picture of customer perspective, but with an enthusiastic invitation to return to show progress. Clearly, the customers were pleased to have been listened to and valued.
Being focused on the customer, with a bias toward action, fostering a culture of prototyping by interdisciplinary teams, learning to “show, not tell” and then — above all — listening, these design thinking practices have helped Fidelity gain important insight into meeting customer needs, and increased the odds we’ll continue to provide excellent customer experiences.
For more articles like this one, download the Harvard Business Review report: Creating a customer-centered organization
*Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Insight Center.