I had the unique chance to head UX for two of the largest Investment banks in Europe - BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank. I saw similar challenges and learnt similar lessons at these, even if my experience at each was vastly different: I built up the UX team from scratch at BNPP over the course of 5 years and took over an already well established team at DB. Below goes my insight on how to keep sane and progress as a designer in engineering-centric, bureaucratic enterprises.
Most designers will find greatest reward and motivation in seeing their efforts materialise in real products being used and liked by real users. This can take weeks, if not days in some startups, for instant gratification. For some of the largest organisations on earth, however, a major new product takes years to plan and release and can be scrapped by the stroke of a pen. How do you keep your momentum and motivation?
My trick has been to learn to selfishly enjoy the design process, regardless of whether or when it goes to production. As a designer, I love the creative process on its own - I love the research, the ideation, the painstaking polishing. The design process doesn't have to be a means to an end (a product in use) - it can be an end on its own for you as a designer. You get your chance to explode with creative energies, practice your skills and do what you like doing best - design. This should be sufficient motivation for you, regardless of what happens with your designs further down the road. In a large enterprise, you often won't be able to control the technical, legal, and business limitations that ultimately drive the fate of your creations. So stay true to your creativity, cherish its practice and take pride in its outcomes, but once you've done it, disown it and if it happens to die, watch that with a smile from the good memories and valuable lessons of its birth.
A healthy detachment from the fate of your creative outcomes also helps deal with the frustrations of yet another revision from opinionated sponsors - see that as an extra chance to practice creativity. As long as you don't blindly execute a client’s request but interpret it through your own creative process, each revision can be rewarding, fun, and useful! It takes discipline and a there's a thin line between healthy detachment and lack of ownership, but if you get the balance right it can be a never ending source of reward and job satisfaction.
My hands-on work at Deutsche Bank included the FX trading platform of their Autobahn suite of applications. By the time of my involvement, it was already a mature product with well-established teams and processes in place so we were adding a stream of new features that would normally be broadly agreed and resourced at the start of the year. With budgeting and deadlines agreed long before the features were designed, my hands were effectively tied - none of my suggestions for innovative UI or custom controls came to fruition because the resources were not there to implement anything extra. I never gave up and stubbornly continued designing innovative responses to my briefs. These were much appreciated by business as useful insights and ideas and kept my creativity going through what could otherwise have been a monotonous stream of datagrids and text boxes. Perhaps 5% of it went into production, but it opened up a lot of conversations and it kept me motivated. I didn't get frustrated by the lack of support for my ideas - my selfish goal was to keep coming up with the ideas because I love doing that, and what the organisation made out of those ideas was less important. You need to manage the relationship with developers to ensure they don't see you as a risk to delivery, but once they establish you're not precious about your ideas, you start building good rapport.
You need to be selfish about your creative motivation - if the organisation doesn't provide the opportunities, create them yourself or risk the slow death of design as usual.
Large bureaucracies are two things - large and bureaucratic. The bureaucratic part will often stifle innovation - it discourages risk taking and it takes time (by the time you push something through the door it won't be all that cutting edge anymore). Size, however, presents unique creative challenges and can be a source of immense inspiration. The amount of data, the scale of complexity, and the breadth of scope you will get in a large organisation can rarely be matched in smaller startup environments. It's a different kind of creativity but it can be equally satisfying. In startups you're focusing on solving a single problem as best as you can and that depth creates the opportunities for creativity. In enterprises, you may have to work with hundreds of problems so you're going for breadth, not depth - you might not solve each problem as best as one could, but laying out a framework to embrace all problems is on its own a creative challenge of immense potential.
At BNPP, for example, I had the chance to define not just the UI for stand-alone solutions, but an ecosystem to combine all separate solutions into a single experience. Our traders and marketers had to work with dozens of internal apps and systems, often switching between several apps for a single task, double keying information, looking for the same record in multiple systems and cluttering screens with overlapping UIs (to the point they had up to 8 screens each). Legacy technologies and the sheer amount of functionality meant that we can't realistically streamline all of it into a single UI. To improve the user experience, instead we created an App Store/operating system environment that would allow all UIs to share the same look and feel, communicate between each other, pass context and messages and ultimately allow a smooth journey where users don't even notice they're switching between apps. The design challenges behind this are incredible and to me go way beyond what work on a single UI can offer:
You have to map out not just specific user journeys, but how the separate user journeys are related in a broader experience map. To do this, I felt we needed ethnographic insight beyond what the usual shadowing techniques allow for. I employed eye tracking technologies not as a usability, but as an ethnography method - users were given a pair of clear glasses to wear for a period of time as they go through their usual work. Behind the scenes, the glasses recorded eye movements across 6-8 monitors, allowing us to aggregate quantitative data on user habits and start understanding broader user journey patterns. It literally was a chance to look through the users’ eyes as they worked uninterrupted in their usual context. The scale of the endeavour justified an exciting focus on good research beyond what a single project would have afforded.
We were building a system of systems. We weren’t designing specific experiences, but capabilities that would enable others to orchestrate their experiences. The creative challenge was to define design heuristics with the right balance between flexibility and adherence to best practices. Really, we were designing an operating system setting the standards and plumbing to channel good interactions from other applications and orchestrate them together seamlessly. Analytically and creatively, I found this a unique challenge beyond what a single UI can offer
We weren’t styling a single app, but creating style guides to be applied across the app store. Anyone involved with setting a style guide will recognize the added challenge of designing styles to accommodate multiple scenarios, different user groups and contexts. Beyond the usual challenge in UI design of combining certain elements on a screen in a visually pleasing way, you have to create the rules that will allow any combination of any elements in any order without a compromise in aesthetics.
To sum up - scale offers amazing challenges for creativity. It’s a very different creativity from the eye-catching world of startup designs, but if you like analytical work and complexity, there’ll be plenty to keep you excited in a bureaucratic enterprise.
Large bureaucratic organisations rarely promote entrepreneurship directly - it’s not the place to come up with your own product idea and implement it quickly. Nevertheless, there are plenty of opportunities to be proactive and agile. Think of the organisation as a marketplace and design evangelisation as your marketing tool. If you can illustrate the strength of design thinking and highlight the benefits to new areas of the business, you can effectively win new business and grow your reach with new projects. The process, as well, often involves green thinking and offers a lot of space for creative freedom as you are pitching your vision for design’s contribution to a new area.
At BNPP, I held a series of lectures and tutorials for Business Analysts and Project Managers on the value of UX. Out of those, we saw interest in a new area of the business - Equities, that hadn’t at the time explored design as a competitive advantage. What followed was an intense short exercise of quick research dive and solutions prototyping to illustrate how design can add value to the group, that in all aspects was a startup pitch - extreme deadlines, no resources, and a blank canvas for action. At the end of it, I had a successful partnership with dedicated budget for several resources transforming the offering of that part of the business. The opportunities for entrepreneurship are there in every organisation, so if that’s your thing don’t be scared by large bureaucracies.
In the corporate world, decision making is often committe-based and normally taken on the back of hard data and analysis, rather than gut feeling and emotion. Hence, it may be difficult to promote design projects on the back of their intangible promise for improved experiences. Use this focus on data to your advantage and employ user research as a powerful marketing tool for your ideas. Back up the rationale behind your design direction with specific insight and data from user research - show numbers, analysis, and ideally impact on the bottom line. Speak the language of your audience and you will be rewarded.
At Deutsche, I was working on an FX Order entry screen that had been already designed with data input in a tabbed interface where fields were separated between two views (but some fields persisted on both!). This was an obvious design mistake for a simple entry screen that could have easily accommodated all controls in a single view. However, weI were only able to break through stakeholders’ resistance to change when we showed hard numbers - ⅔ of users had failed a task on our usability study.
At BNP Paribas, I was working on a massive global markets web portal with market data and research analysis across financial markets - FX, credit, rates, commodities, and equities, but also promoted our execution capabilities and post-trade services. The amount of information and data was staggering and the biggest challenge on the project was to structure the information architecture for intuitive navigation. We had a strong push from business to categorize content by its relation to our services in three broad sections of the site - Pre Trade, Trade, and Post-trade areas. Instead, what we thought would work better as designers is to have the asset classes (FX, credit, etc) as main categories. We were only able to convince management when we carried out a statistical analysis of current traffic and run statistical correlation and linear regression studies to show how individual users only visited pages from a single asset class and were likely looking to go to a section labelled after that asset class, rather than a generic “Pre Trade” category. This illustrated a simple fact - most visitors were traders and traders normally work within a single asset class, but we had to put up the numbers to back our claims.
While it does create more overhead when you have to back up every decision with numbers, this focus of bureaucracies on data is a fantastic opportunity for designers to research more, question their ideas more, and ultimately understand their users and markets better.