Q&A: Applying Service Design within a Financial Institution

On October 13th, Natalie Kuhn did a talk for the Service Design Network New York Chapter and the community had A LOT of great questions, only some of which she could answer on their Zoom call. To do the rest of the questions justice, she sat with them and wrote out her responses here.

Here are some other resources for context on the talk —


Financial Industry & Regulation

Natalie: When it comes to unique challenges I consider the biggest ones to be recruiting research subjects, talking directly to our own clients, and process around what we can share to get helpful feedback on. For the products and services we design for, a specific context is needed to gather useful feedback — some things we create are very specific and highly complex. We cannot simply ask an individual off the street, so if we want to speak to research subjects out of our own clients recruiting can often be a challenge. To combat recruiting research participants we leverage ample lead time and make sure we pad the recruitment process. When we want to speak to our own clients, we often face resistance from partners who are less familiar with research. To work around fears of us speaking directly to our clients we spend time explaining WHY speaking to them is important and what we hope to learn. Finally, we consider financial regulation throughout our process either when it comes to keeping information secure, leveraging NDAs during the concepting phase, or when it comes to designing for something that meets financial regulation ie. that a process has proper checks and documentation. I often work with individuals from our Risk and Legal teams when it comes to specifics.

Natalie: We work closely with our actual clients through research as well as our more traditional financial business partners (our product folks usually come from varying backgrounds but our business parters in roles like Sales, Operations and Servicing often come from banking backgrounds). When it comes to traditional financial business partners, I regularly explain reasoning behind research and design methods. It is as simple as that. I explain what I want to do in regard to collaboration with them or their clients — I just break down steps, reasoning behind each step in detail to help them build trust in me and the process. I educate and build trust along the way, that never stops and I embrace that it is a key component of my job function.

Natalie: I would say that they partner as they would any other sort of organization, but with more security checks. I have been on both sides at this point, and there are just more hoops a financial institution will make an agency jump through, more precautions. Agency partners often are asked to complete tests to show that they understand regulations we abide by and are sometimes asked to go through a background check before working with us. We may require the use of a secure laptop issued by us or require additional security to be implemented when doing any work for us. Outside of that, just explain WHY you are needing to do anything you would like to do collaboration wise ie. I need to speak directly with your clients to better understand how they work with you using a different lens than you may have used in the past / to pickup on details that will help inspire the design work to be most effective and meet their unique needs.

Org Design, Partnership & Creating Allies

Response from Brian Gillespie (SDN Global Leadership Team) in chat: Great question, indeed. Though it takes two to tango, I do believe we service designers need to change our mindset and meet the business “where they are”. Using tools that are not just service design tools often helps… eg. value proposition canvas, segmentation vs. personas, and such

Natalie: I look for allies everywhere, regardless of job description or position within the company and find that you can find them anywhere — it all depends on your ability to explain your process and its importance / ability to add value to the business (similar to the tools Brian mentioned above). You have to sell what you do on constant basis. No one wants to hear that because it sounds like a lot of work, which it is, but that is the way I have built trust and allyship for the discipline of service design and to advocate for myself as a key partner. Every time you work on a project you will need to engage with a plethora of stakeholders with different backgrounds and different levels of understanding of design. So each project is a new opportunity to teach and show value by doing. You can teach and show value through your approach to research, synthesis, collaboration, prioritization and ability to launch services and products. Each step requires explanation and coaching for others. I would not say any particular stakeholder is difficult, but under tight timelines there is a lot of pressure to cut corners around the SD methodologies. I am very careful here and choose my battles wisely while not sacrificing the core of what it means to leverage an SD mindset. I will say that folks who believe in human centered design and/or work closely with process design, ie. Product Owners and Process Engineers, are easy converts and faster allies than others.

Natalie: I do not think their role particularly matters — I will say that their team was being left out of process discussions that they should have been included in. They were happy to hear me talk about the importance of bringing in stakeholders from every part of the business when reviewing research, coming up with solutions and making changes. I have found the way to make SD most appealing is through indicating the business cost later down the funnel if you make a mistake. If you do research, consider all departments, deeply understand processes involved (in the way you might use a service blueprint to illuminate the often invisible systems at play), you avoid costly business errors, oversights. Service Design may take more time up front but it avoids costly mistakes down the process because you ultimately have better visibility and understanding of the whole scenario.

I have also experienced people claiming to be doing SD, using the “fancy” words as you say, service blueprint seems to be everyone’s fave, and then ultimately not actually doing it— I combat this by asking questions about their understanding and offering up kind suggestion for how to continue to iterate on their SD approach. Like, “yes that is great that you have created a service blueprint from what you know, do you mind if we show this to additional stakeholders to make sure we got their roles and activities correct”… “I am sure you did a great job of documenting everything, but just for my own learning, can I show this to some other stakeholders for their input?” Offering to do the heavy lifting is key here. Then share any additional insights, learnings you gained by more adequately leveraging the method.

Natalie: I would not say that our teams are fully at scale yet, but we have made major progress. Gatherings and meetings should involve some kind of foundational connecting journey unfolding over time. For example, looking at the client lifecycle across all products and services within the Commercial Bank. What is the common thread across all your work? Leverage that thread to understand how everything you are doing comes together, where there are overlaps, and where there may be gaps that you can fill in as a team.

Natalie: I collaborate closely on a day to day basis with product managers. When it comes to business decision makers, I meet with on more of a bi-weekly, monthly or quarterly cadence —it depends on who they are and what decisions need to be made. If something becomes urgent I meet with both product managers and business decision makers more frequently.

Natalie: I partner closely with UX partners as I would with content strategists, product owners, developers, project managers and business partners. We all offer different skillsets, different lenses to solve core problems. Between SD and UX we divvy work up where we are most comfortable and tag team on areas that need both our minds. Some UX folks may focus more on interaction patterns, wireframes, design systems while I think through the research, strategy, and mechanisms to co-create with key stakeholders… we may split things up differently simply depending on context and comfort. Really depends on the individual UX partner and how we compliment one another. There is not a one size fits all partnership here from my personal experience.

Shifting Mindsets & Culture

Natalie: I would say my team and I have been successful in pockets of the business around mindset change and meeting folks where they are, but it does take the enterprise to commit to a larger shift. It often means fundamentally changing the mindset around how problems are approached and solved. This shift cannot solely be bottom up. At least 6 years ago now the design practice within Capital One was founded. It took buy in at a Rich Fairbank level — he committed as our co-founder and CEO to human centered design, and that commitment rippled down and across the organization. Adaptive Path, a design agency, was acquired back in 2014 to build a base of design representation that was then fully integrated across the organization. The rest is history. As designers we stay closely connected within our various pockets of products and services, but also come together as an entire discipline through an annual all hands. UX and SD are generally socialized and accepted, but you will always find a small area that has not been exposed. Over the years we have had different design leaders and continue to mature in the sense of our influence and ability to make an impact on work conducted here. I see other financial industries following suit — moving away from ONLY leveraging design studios and agencies to bringing designers in house. Organizations seem to be discovering the value of working with designers day to day, and embedding them in how they solve problems versus working with them on a project by project basis.

Service Design Process & When It Fails

Natalie: Yep! I would say it happens more ad hoc than linear most of the time. And no I would not call it agile, I would consider it more of an assessment of where you are and where you need to go as a team — what do you know for certain and what do you not know? What have you already done together and what still needs to be done to align, prioritize and implement change? From there, I select what service design ingredients, or methods, are most relevant.

Natalie: I would say the crux of what I do is quickly moving from research to facilitating co-creation amongst stakeholders, to testing and learning with those who we are designing for. I try to do just enough targeted upfront research so that we are not going after a problem blind, and then spend the majority of my time facilitating conversation between stakeholders to leap into testing ideas (could be through a storyboard, paper prototype, digital prototype) with people who would use the service or product. I have found that it can be easy to spend weeks or months on upfront research, which is sometimes very necessary, but in my world I need just enough to inspire informed ideas that we can follow with additional research in the form of vetting concepts.

Natalie: Great question. It is easy to get pulled into additional facilitation opportunities (regardless of context) as soon as your team knows you are capable in that arena. I tend to look one step ahead of the facilitation/important conversation touchpoint — Where is this team trying to go with this? How much of a role will a designer / researcher play after this workshop? Is this something that the team needs to, or should do, on their own to learn? Will I get value from building these relationships? Will this help me get in the door to talk through another, maybe tangential, opportunity I see that the business should be focusing on? It comes down to the value I see in the facilitation opportunity as an individual or for the sake of my team’s goals— if I see value in my being there to move an initiative I care about (again personal or team perspective) I accept, and if I do not then I kindly identify reasons why someone else should take this on.

Natalie: Being a team of one is especially hard if you have not gone through using research or service design methods ad nauseam. I would say my checklist is: 1) Do I know enough to have a clear picture of the opportunity space — What are the problems? Who are all the players? What is connected to what? What are my blindspots? 2) Map out existing state of experience, highlight pain points, triage which are more detrimental than others 3) Ideate around solutions — What would you prioritize changing or adding given the most detrimental pain points? What would need to be true to make these changes? Cost vs. effort? 4) Who needs to sign off on this? What would make this worth while for them to agree upon? Business value? Cost associated? How can I convince them of the urgency to address this? 5) Hopefully you have a sense of what you can / will tackle first so roadmap out how you will make the rest of the improvements knowing that you are working with a moving target — when you change one thing it impacts everything else. Be comfortable with updating your current state view based on changes you’re making. It is a living document and should be updated as a new reality sets in from your implemented changes.

Natalie: If you are trying to build up your portfolio, I would strike a balance between depicting efficacy across various service design methods and ability to impact real change ie. maybe some projects you worked through a listing of methods to get to a result where some projects were more expedited, bare bones SD, to get to powerful changes. I do not see there being a formula here or an exact science. Just make sure you are driving results, outcomes that can be measured.

Natalie: I don’t see total end failures happening often, but solutions that may slightly miss the mark that one can continue to iterate upon. I would equate what you are talking about as a version 1 of something that you continue to build out. I also argue that if you do your research, make sense of it, collaborate with all stakeholders, test and learn from actual customers of the product / service, and THEN launch something you are not going to be that far from the right solution. I see major failures happening when politics and bureaucracy get in the way — priorities change, people lose sight of the real problem they were solving, get distracted by some shiny tech that has nothing to do with anything the customer needed…”an app with AI is always the right solution!” … “drones would be so COOL here!”… I do not see it as a service design failure, but a distraction issue. I recommend drawing back to research, going back to facts about what is working, and what is not working to help your decision makers remember what you are actually trying to solve. Ultimately holding the work up to that lens will help you course correct before going live with a complete failure.

Service Design & Research Tools

Response from Yasmin in chat: I always think of service design tools as being outside of software

Natalie: I tend to agree with Yasmin. There are service design methods and then software that you can use for the outputs of those methods like some kind of a map or visual to illuminate a framework. That said, I see designers in general using Sketch, Adobe Creative Suite products or even simply Google sheets / Excel, Google Docs / Word, Google Slides / Keynote to present their work to get everyone on the same page. MURAL and Murio are great for ideation, collaborative work as well. It all depends on 1) what you are trying to do 2) who you are working with. If you want to be inclusive, which ultimately is a lot of what service design encourages, then you should use a tool that everyone can work within — which is why the Google or Microsoft Office products often come up. The less “pretty” or final the work looks the easier it is to collaborate with others, get their inputs and even have them directly contribute to whatever asset you are working on together.

Natalie: I generally work off of my most recent journey map for the sake of getting going quickly… but usually have to change all the content because the context of each project, and reason for a map, is a little different.

Natalie: I do not see service design methods differing between B2B and B2C, but I do see context shifts. When talking B2B we are still talking about individual human beings interacting with services and products like we are in B2C, they are just doing different things. In B2C you may talking about an individual trying to pay their monthly bills or rent — in B2B a different individual is trying to do the same except they are paying vendors, employees and multiple rents for various properties. So the use cases can be very similar, but the overall context is different. Just make sure to incorporate the larger context and you will be fine.

Natalie: Yes we do. It is hugely valuable to jump start work, with the understanding that research should be conducted regularly because people and scenarios change. Reviewing a research repository before making a research guide and heading into the field can help prepare you and tip you off to areas to dig into further. If anything it could connect you to people within your organization who may be additional subject matter experts or individuals to consult with who may help you learn more about an opportunity space. The hardest part of maintaining a research repository is 1) capturing the research– getting people to see value in putting in a little extra work to memorialize it appropriately (there is some research that should be deleted over time) 2) reminding people to check the repository research before starting from scratch.

Natalie: That is great that everyone is onboard and gets the value of creating service blueprints and customer journey maps! But yes I have often seen the “so you have a map, now what??” issue and struggle to proceed with a next course of action. I position maps as a way to triage and prioritize areas of focus. So, you have a clear picture of the scenario from the map — What is going MOST horribly? What, if changed, could have the BIGGEST impact on improvement? Are there any solutions you could implement that solve MULTIPLE problem areas / pain points? Use the map to help you align as a team from not only an understanding of the space but also an agreement on what needs to be addressed first, second, third and so on. Are there areas that seem to be blindspots before moving forward and deciding on action? Ok, go do some more research, ask more stakeholders about what their roles and responsibilities are. Use the map to help you create yet another map… a roadmap with thoughtful consideration of a phased approach to improving the space you are trying to improve. Remember to consider a RACI —responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed–chart or key stakeholder chart to assign tasks across the board.

Future of Service Design

Q: I’d love to hear thoughts on the future of service design, even over the next 5–10 years. I work at a medical school in a service / systems design group and we are applying service design to health, social services, vaccine delivery, etc. || What was the name of the person who Natalie recommended on the future of service design?

Natalie: Jesse Grimes has a wonderful presentation on global service design trends from his experience as a part of the global Service Design Network leadership team. I highly recommend taking a look through that deck and following Jesse on Medium or through the SDN site for more up to date thinking since he is closer to studying it as an industry at the moment. My perspective is that service design will continue to permeate through complex system design ie. healthcare, government and financial services, and we will continue to find more valuable uses for its methods.


Hey wow, thanks for reading or skimming if you made it this far down!! Here is a fun photo of some of the folks from the talk who were brave enough to turn on their camera for a “selfie” of us together on Zoom.

Natalie Kuhn
Natalie Kuhn - Designer, Researcher, Strategist, Trainer, Coach


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