How USAA revamped its digital customer experience

Every financial institution designs its website and mobile app with customers in mind.

But USAA says it has taken that idea one step further, attempting to ensure that all parts of its digital channels are designed to make it easier for people to find what they really want and resolve their issues in the most efficient way possible.

USAA’s chief design officer, Meriah Garrett, who previously worked at the design firm Frog, is responsible for rethinking and redesigning member- and employee-facing experiences.

Following is an edited transcript of what it means and how it’s going.

“Human-centered design really means starting with people at the beginning of your process,” says Meriah Garrett, chief design officer at USAA.

What’s a day in the life of a chief design officer like? It’s not a title I see every day.

MERIAH GARRETT: It’s becoming a bit more common. This is something we see at companies like Intuit, IBM and Capital One. Citi had this role in the form of Stephen Gates [who was global head of design at Citi until April 2018; he is now head of design transformation at InVision]. I do think it’s become more common as Harvard Business Review and other sources have been telling major Fortune 500 companies for a long time that being human-centered and taking a design-led approach can be a differentiator.

A day in the life for me is around leading, inspiring and connecting teams. We do some things to create value faster, like having a strong design-language system that allows us to componentize the user interface elements. Designers shouldn’t be thinking about form fields and date-picker widgets, they should be thinking about higher-order problems: What’s the human psychology in a product space and how do we help create and deliver value to our members?

What is a design language system? Is that something that already exists, or something each organization creates for itself?

Once upon a time, companies just had brand guidelines. Digital designers and product designers would take the guidelines and create a digital style guide. What has become quite commonplace over the past few years is to turn that into a code-instantiated set of components that can be put together more quickly, kind of like UI building blocks, so you can quickly build a page. You need these elements defined for all of your channels, whether that be mobile or responsive web channel, eventually pushing into voice. The real goal is to create consistency for the member experience, but also create reuse and efficiency for those processes.

When I joined USAA a few years ago, you’d go to one page and you’d have a phone number field that had three boxes. You’d have to put your number in there and you’d better not put any dashes in. You’d have a phone number field in a different portion of the product experience where there was one box and you should put dashes. Just having those predefined, but not just defined from a style perspective but actually built out, so you’re using the exact same components, creates a lot of efficiency and frees designers up to partner more closely with business on the core problems of the products.

Have you built a library of these reusable components?

We have, our centralized group creates and manages these. It’s a living library that all designers contribute back to. A designer might create a new component and then ask if this is something we should standardize and add to the core system.

What is human-centered design, in your view?

Human-centered design really means starting with people at the beginning of your process. What’s the value we’re going to deliver? All too often it’s easy to assume you know the needs of your customers. At USAA we’re all members who work here, so we eat our own cooking every day, but we’re not our membership.

If you talk to our membership, especially some of the young enlisted, they’re telling us things like, “I don’t know the difference between a checking and a savings account.” Or “I didn’t learn these fundamentals from my parents because they put money under the mattress.” Or, “The reason I have a checking account for the first time is because the military told me I had to in order to get my paycheck.” Other members are more financiall literate. So making sure you’re coming with that fresh, beginner’s mindset every single time.

So it’s starting with humans and using that kind of generative research as a form of inspiration, making sure you’re not starting with your solution and then backing into who it serves, but what are the things these people need and how can I best serve them, and use that as a lens not only for what solutions you should create but how you should prioritize them within your backlog.

One thing I heard you say is we can’t assume everyone is like us. What are the best ways of extracting what people really want-surveys, monitoring behavior, reading app store comments, or other ways?

Yes, and one thing I’m prioritizing with my team is that the quantitative research is very essential, whether that be large-scale surveys or monitoring behaviors, as in, where’s the falloff from this flow? The quantitative often tells you what is happening. The best way to get to why it’s happening is qualitative. We try to ground our process in that what to better frame questions or hypotheses. And then make sure the people who are actually coming up with a solution, including the product owners (we call them experience owners here) and the designers are the actual people who get to talk to humans, rather than just reading research reports.

Then they get inspired to create new solutions and from that personal empathy, make something that’s much more relevant. Sometimes just from talking to 10 people you can add so much human color and story and meaning that drives to a different level of quality solution.

Do you do that by interviewing members?

The one-on-one interview with open-ended questions is good. But you also try to be as observational as possible: often what people say is different from what they do or how they behave. So you’re usually trying to come at it from multiple methods to see if there’s cognitive dissonance. Watching what they do is ideal but that’s often hard, asking them to make something alongside you is valuable because you can uncover their mental model in a way that’s different than the way they talk about it.

So do members literally sit with designers while they work and tell them what they like and don’t like?

We put as much control as possible in their hands. It’s not always asking them to literally design the product, but sometimes they’re helping to draw their mental map of a space, or create a day-in-the-life kind of journey and talk about their steps and the way they think about something. When you take it to the extreme, you’re giving them UI components and having them build their ideal view. You don’t take that literally – your job is to synthesize this and to understand the intent they’re giving you. It’s not like our customers are designing the screens. But the value you get is digging deeper into their understanding rather than just listening to their words. As a rule, humans are pretty bad at self-reflecting, so you’re trying to get them to talk about it in fresh new ways.

You also described taking a problem and having the designers come up with a solution to that problem start to finish. What kinds of problems are you tackling?

Everything from how do we get people in the right credit card to what happens when there’s a decline in the point of sale, to how do we reimagine bill pay and think about that in a broader sense, not just for members but within the bank and paying internal bills of the property and casualty company. All the way to, when I first open a checking account and I have that unboxing moment in my first-time use, what are the things you need to encourage me to do so that I can get the most value out of that product?

You think about that journey of consideration and understanding of what the service offering is, to application and eligibility. So tying those moments together and thinking about that end-to-end process and experience is where it usually starts.

How do you prioritize – are you focused on the things people complain about the most? Falloffs? Or where are the best opportunities to build relationships and gain revenue?

All those things. These priorities are always in tension with each other: You need it to be technically feasible, you need it to be business viable and something that really makes sense in order to drive the business forward. And you need it to be desirable and fulfill those human needs.

The things that are the most desirable aren’t always the easiest to develop. You need at the same time that business viability to pull back from giving everybody a $5 reward with every swipe. Because of course that would be desirable, but it’s not something that makes sense to do. It’s good for the member but not for the membership. So keeping that healthy tension between those three legs of the stool is something we always keep in mind.

Can you think of an example of where you’ve taken something that was not human-centered design and you turned it into human-centered design?

One tiny one happened a year ago. Once upon a time when a member lost their credit card, there was not a good online flow for that lost-or-stolen card moment. It was always a fully disruptive event. There was no way to pause your card. So we went through this process to say, how are people really thinking about it? It’s not always just about fraud; it’s sometimes about human error, sometimes other things. How do our membership understand the difference between lost and stolen, understand the difference between needing to pause a card but not being ready to report it as gone forever. So there was this tiny moment, but a real moment of truth. And as our bank partner likes to put it, a moment that matters.

Now there’s visual representation of those cards; we’re talking about it in a more human way. It was a fast process – we were able to get some experience to market within a quarter. Yet we’ve seen tremendous member feedback around it of being a positive experience. There are many others, but I love small examples because all too often, people hear design, innovation, and they think, “That’s where I’m going to disrupt my business” or, “I’m going to invest in the big spots.” So often for customers, it’s those little moments of disruption or those places where we’re speaking a financial language and they have a different narrative in their brain that really matter and build trust over time. Having a good lost-or-stolen flow isn’t something you’d advertise in a marketing campaign, but it matters and it makes people feel like you’re out to care for them.

American Banker Editor at Large Penny Crosman welcomes feedback at


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