ARTICLE NO. 608 January 24, 2011
by Tim Paul
UX Magazine sat down with Tim Paul, Director of Product Management and User Experience at E*TRADE at the Forrester Customer Experience Forum. This discussion was part of our ongoing effort to profile business UX leaders so other businesspeople can learn from the examples set by other managers and executives, and so practitioners and consultants can hear about UX from the client's perspective. You can read more about the Business UX Leaders Series here.
Part 1: The role of UX at E*TRADE, and how it works with other areas in the organization
Part 2: Experience and brand design in E*TRADE's online channel
Part 3: Moving from the Web to mobile, contending with security and regulatory concerns
- What’s your role and the role of your business unit?
- Paul: It’s twofold. First and foremost, it’s defining the overall user experience across our platforms. Our customers today have a number of different ways to engage with E*TRADE, and what our job primarily is, is to ensure that we provide a top-notch, consistent user experience any way in which our customers choose to engage with us. That’s really the user experience side. The product development side is a separate group that I have that defines functionality, the business needs, etc., for a number of different products that we manage internally.
- We have the product development group that is really, really focused on the functionality, the customer needs. And then we bring in a separate user experience team whose job is to produce wireframes, produce the overall UX, and to ensure that the usability and interactions of the said product actually meet the needs of the customer as well as the vision of the product manager.
- What is the role of UX and UX techniques, such as wireframing and prototyping, in the ideation and requirements-building phases of product development?
- Paul: We do very, very low-res—almost back-of-the-napkin—type of drawings at the infancy stage of a project. It really helps us brainstorm ideas and come up with some different ways of approaching the UI. And then once we agree upon a potential approach or a handful of approaches, we will then move to the low-res wireframe phase. That’s where we engage... it’s really a combination of our UX team working a little in conjunction with our visual design team. We don’t want to get too high-res early on, but we want to make sure that we’re adhering to design standards, brand standards, etc. So it’s really a collaborative effort between the product manager, our UX team, and then visual design in really trying to define how that overall experience will look and feel.
- What is the role of the product manager through those phases?
- Paul: E*TRADE is structured a little bit differently than a lot of other organizations. The product manager is asked to wear a lot of different hats. So they’re the business analyst, they’re the functional document writer, they even go as far as doing business user acceptance testing. So they really own the product from beginning to end. They’re accountable for the product. At the on stage of a project, we will ensure that we’ve set very specific goals for that particular development effort, and it’s the product manager whose sole responsibility it is to ensure that those goals are met. And the UX team and the design team are nothing more than supporting roles to help drive the product to the best possible outcome.
- We’ve positioned the UX team to be supporting elements of the product development life cycle. The last thing we want to do as an organization is make the UX team the decision-driver. Because then that kind of shuts down the interactions between the various groups, which ultimately get us to probably a better product than just what the UX individual might have contributed should they be driving decisions.
- With UX in a supporting role, is there a risk that people will relate to it as a cost center rather than as a strategic investment?
- Paul: The difficult part is ensuring that you have the right balance of input, I think, during the product development lifecycle. As an organization, we have yet to go down the path of really having UX drive decisions. Will we get there someday? Potentially. Right now, it is more of a cost, but it comes with such a great value-add—at least it’s a perceived value-add at this time—that we are confident that we will continue to evolve the model that we have with UX. And potentially as the team further grows and we can demonstrate not only how we can effect change and improvements on the Web, but also in the internal tools that we use, it will become more of a focused group that has broader responsibilities and experience, and will probably be looked at to hold more accountability over time. We’re just not there yet.
- Resistance to UX often comes from the misperception that it will make projects take longer. How did you overcome that as you rolled out UX at E*TRADE?
- Paul: What we did was we targeted one or two key projects and we said, “Alright, allow us to prove out the value that the UX team will bring and how we’ll help drive the speed to market.” And it had proved out to be true, because the experience that was even brought during the wireframing stage and how well thought through that was, required less changes during the low-res cycle. It resulted in less changes during the high-res cycle, during all of our executive reviews. And then ultimately even downstream to the development cycle as well, there were less change controls filed because we thought through a lot of processes very early on.
- Has your IT department been supportive of the introduction of UX into the product development process?
- Paul: Yeah. One of the demands that we are now getting out of IT is for more interactive wireframes and prototyping so that they can better understand. It’s very difficult for developers when you’re handed a 1200-page document with screen shots, and it’s like, “Alright, now go build what we want.” That’s where we’ve really started to leverage prototyping and other tools to help hand over something to technology that they can get their hands on and they can actually see how we would like the interaction to be. And they want more of it, which is a nice testament to the value the UX team is now bringing.
- As the name of the company implies, E*TRADE was founded in the online channel. How has that influenced your interactions with customers?
- Paul: Our customers tend to be fairly tech-savvy, so a majority of them opt for online interactions first. As we’ve continued to try and drive our customers to the online channel, we have seen the adoption of those channels increasing accordingly. However, we’re at the point as an organization where we want to have the right balance, because as you’re driving customers to the online channel, you don’t have that personalized type of experience—that one-on-one experience—that less tech-savvy or really what we call the long-term investor—the long-term investor typically looking for a mix of online interaction, the ability to speak with a representative—someone they know and trust.
- So we’re at the point at this time where we offer customers the opportunity to engage with us any way that they choose so we want to ensure they understand that the offline channel is still there if they want that—that true one-on-one relationship, the person to speak to on the other end of the phone or coming into one of our centers—they have those opportunities as well.
- How and when did user experience (specifically in those words) become an official part of E*TRADE’s business?
- Paul: I’d say probably about two years ago was when we first started having the discussions about forming a dedicated user experience team. We always felt that we had a very good product offering, but what we noticed was that there was a little bit of a modified or different experience, depending on which group built which product.
- We always use web standards and design standards within the organization, but as products evolve and there is a desire to provide a more enhanced user experience, one of the challenges that we saw was that enhancing the user experience on one platform meant less consistency on pre-existing products. So probably about a year and a half to two years ago, we started the discussion, “OK, how do we ensure that across all of our different platforms, whether it’s our active trader platform, the website, mobile, etc., how do we ensure that we are always continually providing a consistent experience?”
- We got buy-in very early on, once we showed some examples. What we ended up doing is taking a particular project, just as an example, in terms of how using a dedicated and experienced UX person really helps speed to market. It helped in terms of the number of iterations that we went through as we were doing user testing, etc. And then we showed some examples of, “OK, here’s some new ways we’d like to do this. If we didn’t have anybody analyzing the broader user experience across the website, here’s where the experience would have been a little bit different.”
- So we’ve started to take efforts to ensure that any new functionality or approaches that we’re taking on the Web are not only introduced in a new product, but they’re migrated throughout the rest of the web experience as well to ensure that it’s consistent. The proof was in the pudding there. It was something that was very easily seen by our executives. Once we did that, there was the agreement across the organization to invest more heavily in UX and really even have more of a focus than we had in the past on superior user experience.
- How do you ensure customers have a consistent experience with the E*TRADE brand?
- Paul: In terms of brand consistency, that’s fairly easy. When you look at the signage that’s at our branches, we ensure that that matches the logo treatments and etc. that we have on the Web. In terms of a consistent customer experience across your online and offline channel, that is a challenge. It’s something we’re still working out at the time because we’ve really developed a core and distinct UX team about a year or year and a half ago, where we had disparate groups that had either UI experience or individuals schooled in UI in separate product groups.
- So as we formed this single team, we’re now really focusing on how can we take the great aspects of what we’ve done online and carry that through in terms of customer engagement over the phone, whether it’s improving the usability of our internal systems to make call resolutions a little bit quicker, or just ensuring that the systems are efficient as well so that our representatives have a really good experience, because we feel that will translate to an individual on the other end of the phone.
- From E*TRADE’s perspective, is your mobile experience an extension of your web experience?
- Paul: Absolutely. What’s been very interesting on the mobile front is you look at the time of usage as an example and you see a very prototypical user who is commuting in the morning or commuting in the evening, and during market hours, they’re more apt still to use the Web. But outside of market hours, when they’re potentially not in the office, or in front of the computer, or what have you, they are using the mobile platform. So it really is an extension where it gives users added time and opportunity to engage with E*TRADE and our product offering, where prior to mobile, that opportunity wasn’t there.
- Do your mobile offerings have the same capabilities as your website?
- Paul: Our core functionality is exactly the same. Our interactions might be a little different, but our core functionality has always been the same. One of the things, when we were surveying our customers, what we found was that there wasn’t the need for as much... Let me say it a little bit differently: customers’ usage or expectations of usage for a mobile platform versus the website was a little bit different. We see customers interacting with our website and the expectation of what information will be available. There’s a bigger expectation on the website and we’re still trying to figure out why, so we’re doing some customer surveys at this very time, actually, to understand why customers are more apt to use certain functionalities and obtain certain information via the Web versus mobile devices.
- Part of that is probably because of the constraints of the device. Speed is still evolving in the mobile space. So as the rendering of pieces of information gets a little more evolved, I think you’ll see more of a migration and a need and a desire for additional functionality. The iPad has been a very interesting device because that has kind of blurred the lines between smartphones and laptops or PCs. And what we’re already seeing is that the demand for information because of the additional landscape or real estate that you have is already different than a prototypical smartphone user.
- Do your customers perceive the web and mobile experiences as distinct, or as a unitary, integrated experience?
- Paul: We’re very hopeful they see it as one unified experience, and that’s what we continually strive for. Knowing that customers aren’t always in front of the computer and market volatility drives demand for action at any time, between the alerts that we offer our customers via the mobile channel as well, the expectation is whether they’re reading an article in the paper, whether they’re talking to a friend, or they hear about any particular idea, we don’t want to force customers to the Web channel specifically to be able to do additional research or to perform a particular action. So going back to “access anytime anywhere,” regardless of the time or place in which a customer wants to either make an investment decision or just do additional research, we want to ensure that they have that opportunity at any time.
- Is it difficult to provide good user experiences in the context of an industry that has serious security and regulatory concerns?
- Paul: We are lucky that, as an organization, we are very focused on security and fraud-prevention behind the scenes, so our approach has always been one where we try to take the customer out of the security aspects of what we do and really just drive a superior user experience.
- Knowing that, there are always some constraints you’re faced with. From a regulatory perspective, I think that’s a very interesting one because when you talk about the requirements of particular disclosures and information that needs to be there from a regulatory perspective, that has given us some challenges. But when you look at the mobile applications that we have, the really nice thing, working internally as tight-knit as we do, is even our compliance organization understands what we’re trying to accomplish. They’re always, obviously, first and foremost focused on ensuring that we’re meeting the regulatory requirements, but they are, as well, open to coming up with different ways in which we can attack that particular challenge.
- Because we are always in contact with our regulators, quite often during the ideation stage we will even engage our compliance and some of the outside regulators and just bounce ideas off of them and make sure that what we’re doing is still in compliance and meeting their regulatory requirements.
- On the security side, one example is a strong customer demand to always be authenticated. They say, “I have my device. It’s always with me. I don’t lose it. Keep me logged in all the time.” There’s a fine balance there. We understand the customer demand for that, but by the same token, knowing that each mobile device has some better aspects than others in terms of security, and ensuring that we’re providing a consistent user experience, I think on the authentication side, we’ve leaned more toward the security aspects than the user experience, because if we lean solely on the user experience, and say, “All of our customers want to be pre-authenticated and always authenticated so give them that opportunity.”
- But still to date we are leaning a little bit more on the security side and ensuring that we’re protecting the best interests of the customer, even though they might not know it because where it’s a little bit more difficult to lose a PC, it’s very easy to lose a mobile device, and the last thing you want is to have somebody pick up that mobile device and have access to other customer assets.
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