UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 570 October 19, 2010

Profiling TIAA-CREF's UX Practice: The Business of Better Experience in Financial Services

UX Magazine sat down with Cynthia Kellam, Vice President, Digital Experience Design & New Media for TIAA-CREF 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: Background on TIAA-CREF



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Part 2: Channels of digitial interaction, accessibility, and the shift toward UX and customer experience (CX)


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Part 3: Building support for UX and upfront research and demonstrating their value, orchestrating good experiences in the short and long term


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Part 4: Vendors and agencies, requirements and prototyping, showing the value of UX and user research, the UX of internal systems


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Part 1 Transcript

What does TIAA-CREF do?
Kellam: TIAA-CREF is a 90-plus-year-old financial services company. We provide retirement benefits and financial security for life for those in academia, not-for-profit, cultural and government institutions—so retirement benefits, essentially pension plans. We also have some retail products like IRAs and life insurance, but our core product is really our pension.
We have a non-profit heritage, but the structure of the company is a little bit complicated. There’s really two halves; TIAA is a separate entity than CREF, and one is still a non-profit and the other is not.
Cynthia, what is your role inside the organization?
Kellam: My role at the organization, leading experience design and new media, is leadership for our customer experience team. That includes our information architects, our visual designers, digital content strategy, as well as social media, and managing all of the relationships with the experience design agencies that we partner with.
I think mostly what's interesting is the target audience that we focus on: those in academia, professors, administrators, staff, faculty, those that work for museums, or are small not-for-profits. I think that's really the most interesting thing about, TIAA-CREF, that we have such a unique niche group that we've spent, as I said, 90+ years focusing on.
How does that specific focus inform your customer experience (CX) and UX efforts?
Kellam: Well, we've developed personas, and they are a little bit different, I think, than what we understand for financial services in general. Our primary, B2C customers—so employees at academic institutions—they're very interested in a lot of information. They like to read a lot. They want to understand their options.
We did some interesting research, just as an example, on designing an online enrollment experience for a pension plan. And there had been a lot of assumptions, internally at the company that the best experience would be the one that was fast and easy, and the emphasis was put on the word fast—how do I make this fast for our customers? And when we went into usability testing, customers said, "I don't want it fast, I want it easy, but easy means understandable. I want to take my time, this is an important decision."
And that's something we feel is pretty unique about our audience. They're very thoughtful and they want their experience to be thoughtful. They don't want to feel that they are being rushed through something without all of the information available to them. They want to be able to have the option to delve deeper. So that's something that's unique about our B2C audience.
On the client side—so B2B—we have administrators at institutions that are dealing with a lot of financial pressures that have increased over the past couple of years. They care a lot about their employees. They're under a lot of pressure, and they want to make sure that they're helping their employees get as educated as possible and make decisions that are going to help them have a healthy and financially stable retirement.

Part 2 Transcript

How do you take something as complicated as financial services and make it trustworthy, easy to understand, efficient and easy to interact with?
Kellam: We're looking to flip the conversation around so that rather than financial topics being intimidating, conservative, long winded, full of these terms that you may not understand and you may feel badly that you don't understand. We want to make it accessible, transparent, and something that really invites engagement and exploration.
What role do digital systems have in your interactions with customers?
Kellam: Our customers come to our website frequently to check the balances of their accounts, to make transactions, to self-serve. The digital experience is significant, and it's only been growing in the past years. They also come to our site for education, for interactive tools, for guidance.
We do have a very strong call center and phone support, and we also have field consultants who meet with customers one-on-one. We have local offices, but at the end of the day, customers go first online. It's like when you go to the doctor, and your doctor tells you something about your health. I know, at least for me, the first thing I do is I go home and search on it. And I may be confirming what they told me; I probably did research before I went to the doctor. I see similar trends with financial services. You may want to speak to an advisor. You may want a financial expert or an advisor to hold your hand while you're actually making a transaction or making a decision. But you're doing a lot of research on your own around that decision-making process.
Is this taking place on the Web or are there any other channels of digital customer interaction?
Kellam: Primarily through our websites. We do have an IVR, so we have an automated response telephone system, which I don't know if you consider digital or not—some people do, some people don't. We have a number of social media presences, so we've got a Facebook page and a Twitter page.
We introduced a mobile app recently. When we first went out to market, it was just a public app where customers could use some interactive tools, get contact information, but just a couple weeks ago we launched Secure Access. So if you're a TIAA-CREF participant, you can log in and see the balances of your account. And actually what's interesting is that currently you can see a more aggregated version of your account through our mobile device than you can through TIAA-CREF.org. So we did a little bit of a leapfrog with our mobile experience. We're obviously looking to catch up with our website, but just had some opportunities to leapfrog what we offer on our website.
This is not unusual for financial services, but data for different accounts are in different places, so we might have life insurance data in one place, IRA information or your 529 educational savings plan in another place. It's just going to take us a little bit longer to get information aggregated on our website. We've been able to leapfrog that because the mobile app is something brand new that we're developing.
We have 90 plus years of customer data. And unlike some companies, our customers are with us for a very long time. They're not just buying a product, and then they're done, and maybe we want to build loyalty so they'll come back. Even like a health care company where you may be on a yearly plan, if you join TIAA-CREF, and you put your money with TIAA-CREF, we hope we're going to have your money until the end of your life because we're offering retirement benefits. And that means a lot of legacy and old information that we need to keep fresh, and that we need to move to systems as we upgrade platforms and service layers.
So it's a challenge, but I think that we're in a place now where we're looking for opportunities to move forward and make sure that we're always putting the customer experience front and center. So obviously there are upgrades, and there’s things that need to happen. We partner with our technology organization to make sure that we're always thinking through the customer impact, if there is an impact, and attempting to always partner that impact with a positive advancement to the customer experience. Because we know, even if it's a change that doesn't have an impact, customers are probably going to be unhappy. They don't like change. For better or worse, they don't like change. So if there is going to be a change because we're taking steps forward from a back end infrastructure perspective, we want to make sure we partner that with some very positive customer experience advancements, so that there's an understood reason for the change.
Is accessibility a serious issue for you, especially considering the regulatory environment financial services operate in?
Kellam: It is. We won an accessibility award a couple years back, right after I joined the company. We did a lot of work on our public website, and we were recognized as one of the most successful [at achieving accessibility], at least from a public perspective. It is something that we think about a lot. We're not quite as regulated as government agencies [which] need to be highly compliant.
It's a growing challenge with all of the new platforms and devices that are available out there and it's something actually that I think is up there in the top five concerns or challenges that I think we're going to face in the next five years. How do you address accessibility needs while also addressing this diversity of devices and platforms, and still ensure a high-quality, customer-centric experience across all those diverse platforms and devices and diverse customer needs, when you're talking about accessibility?
How long has TIAA CREF been thinking about its offerings in terms of the customer experiences you’re providing, rather than just in terms of your product offerings?
Kellam: The mission was always beyond, at least my interpretation of it, is that it was always bigger than just the product—it was about the greater good of these people in the US, who dedicate their lives to educating young people, supporting and displaying artwork, or whatever it may be. But that's a very important central piece of the United States culture. Again, from my perspective it's always been there.
UX and CX are somewhat new concepts in business. How have they affected your thinking within TIAA-CREF and your work as a UX and CX leader?
Kellam: I believe that the first time the phrase “user experience” was introduced at TIAA-CREF was about five and a half years ago. In fact, Elaine Hamann, who was a colleague of mine that I had worked with previously, first introduced the concept of personas and brought me to the company to form a customer experience focused team, focused specifically around digital.
Our focus was on developing a small internal team of customer experience experts. So both experience strategy as well as more tactical implementation, information architecture, visual design, and also develop some skill sets around user experience, testing usability, testing, and we started partnering with agencies that had specialties in those areas.

Part 3 Transcript

Did the focus of UX and CX originate in a particular business unit or as a result of a new business strategy?
Kellam: It was part of the marketing organization. The digital team is part of the broader marketing organization, so that's really where it was initiated. We essentially said we cannot do a project unless we take an approach which is based on the methodology of customer experience design. And we had some resistance at the beginning because it was a brand new concept, there was lots of presentations, lots of helping people understand: what is customer experience and why are we following this methodology?
But slowly over time, it's now become more of a standard approach. There are times still when we have to have these conversations, but it's now the standard way we address digital projects.
What was the initial value proposition used to build support of UX and CX within TIAA-CREF?
Kellam: TIAA-CREF used to be the only financial services company that served the audience I described—meaning academic institutions and others like that. Over the past 10 years, it's become a much more competitive marketplace. We have a lot of other financial services companies that are serving those same people that are in our space trying to win them as customers. Some of them have much stronger retail experiences, and have done a lot more, and have put a lot more money behind their customer experiences.
So, there were pressures from the market place, and pressures from customers because they were saying, “Why is it so hard to use your website—that’s why I call,” to internal advocates who were kind of standing up and saying, “Listen, this is what the industry is doing. This is where our industry is moving. We better start acting this way, we better start leveraging this methodology or we are going to continue to fall behind.”
With UX you sometimes battle the perception that it provides only a soft benefit, that design is a cost center with aesthetics. Has that challenged your ability to build support for you work?
Kellam: It can be a challenge and I think it's also this: You can over-quantify or you can get stuck in this mode where you are trying to quantify everything.
What is the relationship of the new UX focused groups to other business units, which may have had exclusive ownership over products and customer interactions in the past?
Kellam: I think there's an understanding and an appreciation—and when you say customer experience, I'm going to say I'm part of a digital strategy organization—and I like to say within that group, that everyone's a user experience expert. So, even though my team is focused on the practice and the methodology and the approach, we're part of a bigger team that has the same mindset and that's bringing, to some degree, the same level of expertise when they partner with the business.
They see us as being partners and accountable for the experiences that we’re going to design hand-in-hand. And they're comfortable with the expertise and the insights that we have to offer. We are held accountable for the experience, but the business rules, the product description, the products, the way the products are defined, that is really outside of our purview.
What types of research techniques are you using and applying as part of your UX and your CX work?
Kellam: Competitive analysis, and when I say competitive analysis, I don't mean going out and trying to search out the exact same experience that we're looking to build, but looking across the industry and trying to make sure we understand what expectations are being set for our customer base. One-on-one user interviews, upfront user research. That sometimes can be a challenge because it takes time and usually… in fact, I would like that to occur before business requirements are even begun. But just because of time constraints, that doesn't always happen.
We have personas that we leverage, so those already exist. Sometimes we'll create project-specific personas if it happens to be a unique project where we think there might see some unique insights to gather, or a unique type of audience, or types of customers that we are looking to make sure that we solve for. And then usability testing—at least one round, preferably one or two or more rounds. And usability testing, I use that phrase to include nomenclature testing, and if we are redesigning an existing experience we would be doing a heuristic analysis upfront, we might even be doing a usability test upfront. Gathering data, so analytics of that existing experience.
We have a laundry list of different types of methods and methodologies that we would pick from depending on the project, depending on the budget, the business sponsor’s comfort with the amount of research that we want to drive, as well as what already exists that we can leverage and pull from.
Do you have any difficulty selling the value of upfront research?
Kellam: It is challenging to sell in, and I think it is because a lot of businesspeople, in general, have a preconceived notion of how to solve a problem and rush to the documentation of that in a business requirements document, rather than saying, “We have a problem. Let's make sure we understand what the problem really is, what's really causing the problem, and what the user really needs, because it may not be what we assume they need.”
So coming up with good examples where not doing user research upfront has gone wrong, is always very helpful because it's more tangible. And you can say, remember that project where we went all the way into functional requirements, creating something that our customers had no interest in? Because we thought that they would want it, but it was based on false assumptions about what our customers were really looking for. But it's still a challenge, because you're right, there's this notion that the longer you delay starting to code something, the longer it's going to take to launch, which may or may not be true. But at the end of the day, if you're going to want something that no one wants, it doesn't really matter that you did it three months faster, because no one's going to use it.
Given the number of technology tools, products and touchpoints you are managing how are you ensuring the customer and brand experiences are being well orchestrated?
Kellam: I think we are addressing that in two distinct ways. One of them is focused more on the tactical, day-to-day production of the experience, which might be operated in small projects or just needs to be maintained and enhanced. And the other part is really more of the strategic, putting together a strategy and defining a roadmap to move us forward.
On the first part, style guides and standards are really important, and they are a pain in the butt to put together; they take a lot of time and a lot of elbow grease, it's a lot of documentation, but I feel they're critical. And in fact, what we are trying to do now is work very closely with our technology partners, so it's a unified experience design standards and sometimes partnered with code snippets. You can hand it to someone and they can make sure that we are always coding fields the same way, and we are always coding certain kinds of forms the same way. So those types of things were just standard experience design for a common look and feel.
For content and communications, we have a centralized group that all content and communications go through with our marketing partners, so that helps from a consistency perspective and a brand messaging perspective. The second half, which is more of a strategic piece, is we've been working for the past year on what we are calling the “Customer Journey,” and we have them both focused on our individual audience, so our B2C audience, as well as our institutional audience, which is B2B.
The purpose was really to define what we call the “North Star” of where we want to get to in the next three years. We mapped out scenarios across a number of different key user types, at a number of different key scenarios or life stages. Based on the priority of the audience, we picked segments and picked scenarios or life stages based on either priority, where we’re are the most risks because it's a problematic area of the experience, or we have the greatest opportunity because no one else is really doing it well so we want to leapfrog.
We literally mapped out end-to-end experiences and often time even cross channels, when do they come in and out of the digital channel. And then we designed it. It's not detailed wireframes—you couldn't execute on it—but it tells the story of the experience that we want to deliver to our customers and hopefully will be able to deliver to our customers in the next three years, or build up to in the next three years.
It's a great story telling tool for internal colleagues to help them understand what we were talking about when we were talking about digital strategy and experience strategy. And it helped them tie their own business priorities and business objectives to what they were seeing us illustrate and visualize in basically a fake experience that they could interact with. It wasn't really built, it was Flash, but they could understand what we were saying when we described certain types of integrated experiences. So we're using that to help in our partnership with business and technology to say, Which pieces of this journey are highest priority based on business objectives, and are possible in the next s months, or one year, or year and a half, based on technology? And we are going to start mapping these out over the next three yeas.
My perspective of the journey is that maybe two years out it's going to be old and we're going to have to do a new one, because three years out today—what we're envisioning for three years out—I'm sure is going to be way behind all the technology advancements that are going to be happening between now and then.

Part 4 Transcript

What is the role of outside vendors and agencies in your UX and CX teams?
Kellam: Significant. We have a very small internal team. Our digital organization as a whole is about 30 people. The UX department is only about seven people, so we partner quite a bit with digital agencies, and I like to refer to them as my extended team because we expect them to act and behave and know our business and really become as embedded as possible without literally working in our offices. Because we don't even necessarily have enough people internally to always be there with them when they're meeting with business partners or other types of internal clients.
Right now, we don't have an agency of record. We work with a number of larger agencies who cover many marketing functions. We also work with a number of smaller niche agencies that have a specific focus on rich interaction design, or a specific focus on, let’s say, multimedia as another example. Then we have a partner who is more locally based who we work with on a retainer basis at a bit of a lower cost, who truly is an extension of my team.
We rely quite a bit, both from a tactical perspective so on a project by project basis coming in and driving the experience design with oversight from my internal team, as well as more from a digital strategy perspective. A lot of the journey work was developed in partnership with one of our larger agencies.
Are you using the vendors as a bridge to a future when you do more of the work internally, or will specialized, outside expertise always be part of the picture?
Kellam: We will always have specialized outside partners. But we would like to have a few more people internally, have a little bit more of an internal presence just because, to your question earlier about how do you keeps things consistent and orchestrated.
We count on our external agencies to be bringing us leading edge practices, experiences that they've gained from other clients that they've worked with that they're able to share with us. Hopefully they can ramp up very quickly if they have enough staff to do so. Something that I'm going to be looking more so from my agency partners, is even greater bench strength in the technology component. Making sure that the agency I'm working with understands that if we're working on a rich Internet application, that they need to understand how the data's being passed back and forth from our backend, because otherwise there may be performance issues that don't allow us to do what we might have visualized. So having a partner who can bring technical experts to the table, and may even meet separately with our technology organization, I think will help strengthen the collaborative environment that we have and would like to continue to have with our technology team.
Is it difficult to manage the mix of technology vendors, design agencies, and ad agencies, which may all contribute to a single project?
Kellam: It is difficult. Last month we kicked off something were calling a “Great Experiences Touch Point” where every two months we are calling all of our digital agencies together (I think it's about seven now that we have) and they either come in person or they go to one of our local offices for a videoconference. And when everyone's in that room, they're part of TIAA-CREF, they’re not separate—at least that's what we ask. We know they may compete outside of that realm but when they are in that room, they are working for us and they are part of our team and we need them all to be on the same page. And I know that that's a challenge; I used to work at an agency and I know that it's not easy, but we will never be a single agency company. I don't think we'll ever have only one partner. There are just advantages to having different niches and there is natural competition that occurs there.
So that's something that we’re implementing to try and facilitate shared learnings because they all have different experiences with different project teams that they can bring back and help us collectively get stronger at what we do.
Do you generally feel that the marketplace of agency services is strong, or are there missing components in service offerings?
Kellam: I would like to see more strength around business analysts producing functional, very complex and comprehensive functional requirements. Something that we’ve changed recently, just in the past couple of years, is it’s not just wireframes. It is annotated wireframes. Because it used to be when something was fairly flat you didn't need to really annotate it; it's pretty straightforward. A business analyst who didn't really understand all that much about digital could probably write a functional requirements document around flat pages.
But now when there's so many moving pieces and so much dynamic content and dynamic data, you really need a combination of someone internally who understands the business rules and the business logic and the data logic to partner with someone who truly understands how to write functional requirements that describe the correct experience with the components on the page. And that's where we still have room to grow.
Have you shifted your approach to requirements away from written documentation toward something more like prototyping?
Kellam: Yes, in a couple of different ways. We just recently started to use Acture and we're really just kind of trying it out. We looked at iRse, and we're interested in the role that rapid prototyping platforms play in not only helping us figure out test solutions faster, but maybe also spit out requirements rather than having someone have to manually document.
So that's one side of it. The other side of it is creating more of a lab environment where we can have designers and experience professionals sit side-by-side with engineers and developers so that they can partner on prototypes together. We can bring users in to test. And the way I like to describe it is, you're literally defining and solving for experience problems that we know are going to come up because we have them in our vision so that when the project comes up to fund, implementing that solution, we plug it into the solution and it's ready to go. So rather than having to solve it within the lifecycle of a project with limited time and all of those things, you are separately solving for those with potentially different resources, or resources that are moved in and out of that space.
Are there any other interesting customer sets and digital systems that you are working with?
Kellam: Health care is a great example. So health organizations are another client niche of ours. They have some different needs than a lot of our other customers.
We are thinking more and more about how do we facilitate more 'on the go' and highly mobile in more of the traditional sense of mobile but experiences with TIAA-CREF that are central to our customers who again don't have the time to sit at a desk and aren't sitting at a desk all day.
Our B2B audience has also been interesting and critical for us. They need as much support as possible to do their jobs quickly and easily, so at the end of the day, they really just want to be able to help their employees. There's a lot of paperwork, there's a lot of administration, and it’s complex. There's a lot of data, and it's also high-stress, because it relates to regulatory and compliance components. So learning about that audience and making sure we are providing them with a TIAA-CREF experience that has synergies with what we are providing to their employees (our B2C customers) but one that's unique to satisfying their needs.
Do any of TIAA-CREF’s internal systems fall under your purview?
Kellam: We are starting to think more and more about our employee base both from an Internet perspective, but also desktop services. We have big call centers and they work with a lot of different systems in order to serve customers who call up and need help quickly. We don't currently manage or have responsibility for any of the internally facing interfaces on the Internet or otherwise, but we're starting to look into that and it may be something that changes in the coming year or so.
We always like to say employees are customers too. And when you think about the amount of time that an employee may spend trying to find one piece of information on the Internet, you take that and multiply it times all employees, there's a lot of time to be saved and efficiency to be gained with just a little bit more time spent on understanding the needs of those end users and designing interfaces that supports those needs.
Something that we are starting to look into is a lot of HR systems, as well. The challenge is many of them are just off-the-shelf, and sometimes not all that well designed. And it's surprising that probably a lot of employers out there just take them and use them.
Have you had any specific success stories that have helped you build appreciation and buy-in for the work you are doing with the rest of the company?
Kellam: The largest value we've seen is, I think, some of the eye-opening feedback that we received through usability testing. I know it's kind of a discrete activity, but I think when you are able to show the amount of time that can go into producing a business requirements document and the number of stakeholders that can be involved in that process and then taking a product that came out of that (an experience product), and putting it in front of real end users, spending eight hours with real end-users and hearing them respond and seeing them successfully or unsuccessfully engaged with something, has been so eye opening to a lot of our business partners. The light bulb goes off: Why haven't we been doing this with everything?
The natural extension to that is, well why aren't we doing that with business concepts before we even go into business requirements? Why can't we test the whole idea of a product, and some of that already is happening. But usability testing, because it's one on one, because it's qualitative, because it's not focus-group oriented, is something that I think is pretty unique that we brought and that there's value seen in that.
And the positive responses that we've received from our clients. So when we are participating in RFPs now, just the digital teams themselves are participating in RFPs because we're able to showcase some future-state experience design that's been very positively received. So that's another easy way to share value—just getting quotes from clients who say, “We love this new experience,” or from plan administrators, or from customer data showing that they're clearly choosing the online channel.
Have you been bringing your business analysts along to the actual user research or exposing them to recordings?
Kellam: As much as possible we do. I think the hard part with user research is it’s so great when you can be there in person. There's something about physically being in the same—you may be behind a one-way mirror, but you are in the same physical space—and you get the emotion that I think is sometimes hard to translate with remote testing when you're watching on a TV. So we try to get them there in person as much as possible but it can be difficult because we have offices around the U.S.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Cynthia is a seasoned digital strategist and user experience expert with a proven track record of building and leading passionate and successful teams. With over a decade of experience creating user-centered digital solutions, Cynthia has executed designs to address objectives ranging from a robust reliability-tracking interface for operations professionals to a rheumatoid arthritis drug’s brand website requiring accessibility for patients with mobility constraints.

Currently, Cynthia leads the experience design practice and social media strategy at TIAA-CREF. With expertise spanning content strategy, information architecture, visual design, social media and human factors, her team’s aim is to create great customer experiences across all digital properties, applications and new media ventures. Cynthia instills a belief that a company's digital experience defines its brand online and is dedicated to providing exceptional online experiences; driving a forward-looking user-centric approach to strategy and design, and allegiance to tested best practices in execution.

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