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Not just a pretty interface – the fundamental importance of product design

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Published on:8th March 2023
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“Our underwriter customers have complex jobs and are overloaded with information. I see it as our responsibility to build something that can reduce this complexity, require underwriters to think ‘less’ and focus on more on the risks and value-add processes where their expertise and skill are needed.”

Mark Kellie, Head of Product Design, shares his views on the changing expectations of customers, what makes for a great product design, and the biggest myths of design in our latest Q&A!

Mark, how have customer expectations changed over the years?

It depends on what industry you’re in. If you look at consumer financial services, at one point we were all happy to be able to do some basic tasks online, now we want, and expect, way more.

Those expectations have transferred over to the corporate world, we want to have the same experience in the hours at our desk as we do when banking or shopping online.

You can see the difference on people’s desktops – there is a vast difference between the grey legacy, button-tastic tools or packaged software vs newer cloud-based platforms, such as our own, which look appealing, intuitive, and more closely mirror how users want to interact with their products.

What do corporate users now want?

Users want the great experiences they have in their personal lives mirrored in their working lives.  The underwriters we speak to don’t want to have to deal with duplicate data, rekeying, flicking between different screens and systems.  They want a frictionless, efficient experience. They want to feel good at their job and work efficiently.

I think historically companies could get around this with the old “we’ve always done it this way” argument, but that won’t wash for much longer. If software makes corporate users less efficient, certainly in commission-based roles, they won’t hang around. And it won’t be long before companies start asking why they’re not attracting the best talent, and we’ll see people picking where they work based on the tools available to them. In the face of a looming talent gap, companies need to pay attention to these expectations.

Why aren’t corporate tools as user-friendly or well designed as those we use in our home lives?

The unfortunate truth is that companies don’t tend to view their employees in the same way as the customers they need to attract. If you provide a bad user experience for paying customers, you’ll quickly lose their business, but if you’re paying an employee to use a system that makes their job harder or slower, they’ll make do with what they’re provided with.

Short term budgets and siloed teams also have a huge impact on the initial development of commercial tools.  Companies often focus on the technical viability of the solution to their problem, but without the scope required to look further ahead at the bigger picture or learn from the wider team and their experiences. Working this way doesn’t allow for a holistic insight into how the people who are using the system would integrate it into their workflow. Design and user experience rarely feature as a priority here, but they should!

We also don’t see the speed to build in the corporate world. Tools and platforms can take longer to build for many reasons, taking time to hire, using new or inexperienced consultancy, hardware provision or being tightly bound to legacy systems, the focus is often on ‘how can we do it?’, not ‘how can we do it well?’.  Smaller, more nimble businesses are changing the game here. They have the flexibility and agility required to frequently update and innovate, to listen to feedback more carefully and optimise the user experience.

What are some of the main factors that make for “good” design?

The ability to look great and provide an intuitive experience is a given.  What I’m more concerned about is the amount of cognitive load on a user.  Our underwriter customers have complex jobs and are overloaded with information. I see it as our responsibility to build something that can reduce this complexity, require underwriters to think ‘less’ and focus on more on the risks and value-add processes where their expertise and skill are needed.

I always think about the human at the end of the process, the person who will use these tools day in, day out. They want to feel super capable when they use their tools, not have something that will slow them down; it needs to be frictionless.  I want to be able to design the greatest possible tool to help them to complete their job.

How do you get into the mindset of the human at the end of the process?

We don’t often talk about “empathy” in tech, but we really need to be able to empathise with end-users. We need to understand what they’re trying to achieve and their challenges, and create processes and tools that work with them, not against them.  The best way to do that is to spend time talking to them face-to-face, see things first hand, notice the steps and workarounds people don’t realise they do and really understand the job they need to do.

I often see a significant gap between what the business or technical stakeholders says they need, and what the underwriters using a system every day really need. It’s important for us to speak to people right across the business. I really enjoy being able to connect those dots and develop something that meets the business objective and the human need.

What are the biggest barriers to a good user experience?

Design is (incorrectly) seen as a ‘nice to have’. It’s becoming more prevalent for sure, but in a big organisation you wouldn’t see design or deep user understanding given priority. Businesses usually prioritise the budget and business or usage case, but that often doesn’t align with what end users want.  That’s a big barrier.

Companies need to bring in designers at an earlier stage in the process, not once a technical version one has been developed.  If we are on board earlier and can input on the user experience and design, corporate software will be drastically different.

Do you think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what design is?

Yes! I think the misunderstand that design is about more than making a product look ‘pretty’, it’s a lot deeper than that.

Design is a collaborative process, not a service you can engage with at a late stage and expect something perfect. Designers need to consider all opinions, connect all the stakeholders and understand different points of view to create something that not only delivers the business objective but is a joy to use and maximises efficiency – that’s often missed in the understanding.

What’s one myth you’d like to dispel?

That all we’re good for is prettying stuff up! Ha!

I guess a more serious answer is that people think we get it right first time. In reality we fail a lot trying to get things right.  Design is so much about experimentation and trying things out.

It’s worth pointing out, designers often think differently, especially when you look at the corporate environment. We can be seen as adding time to projects, particularly when people want to ‘just get this done’. But that time is worth it to develop a fantastic user experience that meets customer needs much earlier in a product’s lifecycle.

If you’d like to connect with Mark, you can find him on LinkedIn here.


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