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Reinventing Banking: An Interview with Toby Sterrett of Simple

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
December 22, 2014

Every so often, different aspects of my life collide, with interesting results! I recently watched a presentation by Toby Sterrett, Director of UX at Simple, that really resonated with my work in financial services. Toby has graciously agreed to let me interview him for UXmatters.

One of the things that I love from Toby’s video is this quote from Coda Hale:

“Build a shared vision; get the fuck out of the way.”

Peter: It was clear from watching your video that, when Simple first asked you about joining, you weren’t keen. What was it that finally persuaded you to work in the banking sector?

Toby: A lot of it was the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something new. It was an opportunity to build the aesthetic feel and the experience of the product and build what we wanted it to be. When we started, we had nothing other than the idea and a list of features that the founders thought would be reasonable for the first iteration. At the beginning, we were just working on the marketing site, and there was really no product at all. So it was that, combined with the fact that they were willing to hire me and a couple other folks I’d been working with over the past few years; because I knew I worked well with them, and I thought we could get some really cool stuff done.

Banking seemed quite boring and staid—because everything up till then had been kind of boring and crappy. The status quo was something I didn’t even want to think about all that much. I actually tried to ignore money as much as possible; as long as I had a working debit card, it was cool. So what Simple were trying to do was an audacious goal. It took me a while, but then I realized that banking affects so many people. Everyone needs it, but the user experience is generally neglected.

Peter: So you were initially brought in just to do the marketing site, and the founders were going to outsource the design work. What persuaded them to let you take the lead on the design work? And what do you regard as the benefits of outsourced versus in-house design?

Toby: We were initially hired to do the HTML, JavaScript—that kind of stuff. But when we first started, it was me, a guy named Ian, and another guy who was the Creative Director. We were essentially the front-end team at the start, and the Creative Director and I just convinced the founders to let us give it a try, because we’d done stuff like that on our previous job. I’d done the design work and development. Ian was a compute- science major who really loved design, and we’d done projects from beginning to end. So the managers were saying, “You guys are pretty good at that. Why don’t you give it a go?”

At the time, we weren’t going to have a back-end infrastructure for months, so we gave it a shot and turned it into a project. Ian and I just went to town and started sketching things out in super low fidelity. And the project turned out really well. We showed the founders that we could handle a creative project, as well as the engineering side of it. Both Ian and I really like working on a project where we’re able to handle both the design work and the implementation. We thought we’d have the most control over the product if we could handle both sides. We like to be able to say, “This is how we want it to look and feel, and we’re going to build it to make sure it works the way we want it to work.”

Because of where the company was at, working on the back end, that gave us the time to prove ourselves, working on the front-end design. I think it’s proven to be a real advantage, because we’re in control of our own destiny for both the design and implementation. We’ve not had to hire any outside firms—except maybe for some marketing here and there, but that’s about it. We still operate in that same fashion.

Peter: You seem to spend a lot of time putting together multiple designs to meet any given requirement. Tell me more about your design process.

Toby: For the marketing site, we started super low fidelity, deciding we wanted to do a site with several scrolling pages—gosh, back in 2010, they were pretty rare then. We started figuring out what the content should be, then started working on some low-fi comps, just working in Fireworks and Illustrator, then moving on to low-fi mockups in HTML and CSS, all the while deciding on the design direction we wanted to take. And that was pretty much the process—just continual refinement and giving each other ideas, gradually deciding on the direction we wanted to go. From there, it was just an engineering effort.

For the banking site itself—once we got done with the marketing site—over Christmas break in 2010, I was sitting on the floor of my wife’s grandma’s house, just working up mockups, trying to figure out What are the bare essentials for a banking account? And we were thinking, What do we want? and trying to use ourselves and our families for inspiration. Putting together pretty rough comps, trying to see how we could do savings and transactions, understanding what other information we should show—like locations, time, and other stuff like that.

From there, we started showing people our designs and spent a lot of time tightening it up. There are lots of microinteractions around the app—basically, because we wanted to make it a single-page app rather than people needing to go to lots of different sections for every little thing they needed to do. So the transactions are front and center, and we wanted people to be able to tag transactions without going somewhere else. We had a general hierarchy of how we wanted the features to be: balance, transactions, and details from there, plus payments. Transfers people don’t use quite as much, so they were in the sidebar. That was the general approach.

But I really approached it just like I’d approach any other app—dive in, think about the problem, start sketching, get feedback, and iterate a whole bunch. The approach to the build-out was kind of interesting because the build team was getting the general banking infrastructure in place, so we started building out the design in HTML, JavaScript, all of that, but we had no data to work with, so we started mocking it up in JSON itself.

We had to think about what data we would need to make it all possible, so ended up creating an in-house MVC (Model-View-Controller) framework, along with a whole bunch of JSON. I made a layer that would serve up this JSON to us. We were building out the app with a kind of pretend API in the background, working with the data and how we could present it long before we had a real API to work with. That was kind of cool because, when the back-end team was finally able to start working on the API, we had an idea of the structure of it and how we wanted to interact with it, just from designing the app. It really came from that direction.

Peter: So you were going straight from Fireworks to code rather than using a prototyping tool, just because that was the toolset you were most familiar with?

Toby: Yeah, so I pretty much always went from paper sketching to Fireworks and then to HTML. I figured out that it was faster to make changes in HTML and CSS, just because that’s what we were comfortable with, and it’s easy to share with the rest of the team. People can play with it, figure out the interactions, and it’s somewhat real. I have some tools now for doing sort of fake-out prototypes. For some things, that’s a good idea, but HTML and JavaScript are pretty easy, so there’s a very low barrier to working in the code itself.

Peter: You seem to be a strong believer in eating your own dog food.

Toby: Oh, yeah. That’s a huge part of the way the company works. That was one of the main reasons I joined, after I realized that this was something my family could benefit from. As soon as we had a working bank, I was using it daily. I’ve been using it as my bank account and my family’s for the last two years or so. I’m able to create my own bank every single day I go to work. The fact is that banking is such an integral part of people’s lives, and I feel privileged to be able to make that better. It’s been super fun. Everybody in the company uses the product, and we get a lot of very good feedback. There are 180 people, and they’re a good cross-section, so they’re a really rich source of feedback. We can really explore their experiences and understand how we can make things better. I used to work in search, and everyone uses search, but no one really cares about it all that much. But it just feels natural to use the banking app and to try to figure out how to make it better every single day.

Peter: Simple seems to use a number of techniques that are inspired by behavioral finance to help people manage their money. What techniques do you currently use, and have you found that this actually helps people to make better choices about their money?

Toby: There are a few things here. I’m not really sure what stuff qualifies as behavioral design techniques, but the things that make a world of difference for people include just having immediate feedback on their spending. When I was with my old bank, I would go to my bank’s site maybe once a month just to see what was going on—to make sure I had money basically. I had tried some other tools like Quicken and stuff like that, but I found them to be too tedious, too manual; it would just take too long to get different accounts into them through the user interface.

With Simple, when you swipe your card, you get a push notification within a couple of seconds. You know what’s happening with your money, and you can use a hashtag to say what it’s for. So it’s made me a lot more aware of my finances. It’s so easy to see where things are at in real time, versus having to wait for your monthly statement. A lot of it is details like your transactions showing up in your account immediately rather than when they clear. I thought that was just how it was supposed to work, keeping track of everything I’ve spent.

The other side is the planning and goal setting. When we’d just started out, the goals feature was just the idea of slowly setting aside money over time to the point that you probably wouldn’t notice you’re doing it, then when you’d get to the date where you’d want that money back, it would just kind of magically be there. It’s been likened to collecting change and putting it in a jar, then suddenly realizing, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got hundreds of dollars!” That was one of the more obvious changes we made to help people save money, and it’s been pretty successful. We’ve had lots of people say that it’s really changed the way they approach money. Some people say it’s changed their life because they’ve never seen before how they’re saving for things rather than putting things on credit. In addition to long-term planning for things like a vacation in two years, it helps you to allocate money for any purchases you have scheduled.

The first foray we took into planning was creating a bill payment to somebody. When you create a bill payment, instead of just taking the money out of your safe-to-spend money right then, you create a goal for that payment, which makes it easy to start allocating funds for that payment on a monthly basis or whatever works for you. So I have 20 to 25 goals right now, for things like saving for Christmas. I’ll have about a thousand dollars for Christmas that I won’t feel bad about because it’s been allocated throughout the whole year. Things like that make a huge difference. Throughout my life, I’ve never really made sure that I had the money to pay my bills. I just made sure that I had a good enough job that it would always work out. But now I know where the money is going and whatever is left over I’m actually free to spend. So those things have changed my personal behavior and, from seeing feedback from customers, it’s worth a lot to them as well, just by building awareness and making it easy to plan. That’s a huge part of personal finance and having that capability available through your bank rather than third-party tools makes a huge difference because it’s always right there. It’s built in.

Peter: You talk about building for the way people think rather than the way banking actually works. How much of a gulf do you think there is between these two mindsets?

Toby: I think it’s a big thing for design in general, when you’re working with any sort of backend. For a long time, you could tell apps that were just direct tie-ins to however the database was laid out in the backend. There would be a screen just full of fields because that was how the database guys saw it. They were a nightmare to work with. There was no workflow or anything like that. They were just totally engineering driven. So I think, with banking, most banks take that approach where they just say, “Okay, this is how banking works, and it’s always worked this way, so let’s just put some HTML forms together and get it working.” The fact they don’t show you transactions until they clear is one very small thing that reflects that mindset. Regarding the transactions themselves—banks receive a lot of information when they get a transaction from a credit-card processor, but to this day, banks show only a very rough description that comes from the card transaction: the amount and the date—not even the time.

So we decided to take advantage of all the transaction data that we have access to, to see whether we could give a lot more context to people’s spending. I mean, why not show a location if we could figure out where something took place? That’s a data point that somebody could use moving forward. Some people have taken a road trip and have been able to see all their transactions on a map, showing the path that they took. So that’s how people are thinking about their spending: it’s almost like a story. Some customers are treating their accounts like a journal, almost writing paragraphs as memos, attaching photos of people they were with. For me, it’s like a combination of a journal and something like Foursquare, where you check into someplace, then go back and see other places you’ve been. If you think about it, with your banking, it’s like a de facto check-in tool, so if you go back and look at your spending, you get a really good story of where you were in your life. When I think back to when my baby was born, there was all this spending on baby things, paying doctors’ bills, and all that.

So you get a picture of where you’ve spent your money, what you did, and what you enjoyed. We were treating a bank account as something personal and trying to build a product around those personal connections rather than just treating it as a ledger or the frontend to a database like the bank itself has. That was how we were trying to approach it, taking it to a much more heuristic, personal level.

One other thing for me: I’d always procrastinated doing my taxes. I just did not pay attention to that when I was freelancing. It would get to tax time, and I would just go over all my banking and try to figure out which transactions were business expenses. That was a terrible system, but that was what I did! Then, for whatever reason, my bank would not let me have access to transactions older than 90 days from their Web site, so I had to collect PDF statements, print them out, and go over them with a highlighter, just because, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t let people have access to transactions older than 90 days.

With Simple, you have immediate access to all of your transactions, so I could just run a search for last year, and I’d have all the transactions right there, ready to go. The fact that you can tag transactions as you go means that I can now tag anything that’s relevant to doing my taxes and bring that up immediately. I don’t know why banks don’t consider that kind of real-life use case where you need to consider your banking history, but it’s just not possible with a lot of banks. For me, a lot of it is just trying to think things through, considering where I’ve been as a customer, where I’ve been frustrated, and how we can design things to reflect not the way things are, but how they make sense.

Peter: Although your main focus is online banking, it’s clear that you’ve been able to align multiple areas of the business when it comes to supporting the customer. For example, you mentioned people tweeting photographs of their bank card because they’ve just unboxed it and have been blown away by the care that has gone into the packaging and presentation. So I have a sense that the online presence, the printed material, and, I guess, the phone support have all been aligned in the same direction. How has that clear direction been set and supported? Has it been the founders doing what we mentioned earlier, setting a direction and getting out of the way?

Toby: I think that’s probably the main thing. We had an idea of how we’d want things to work, and they just let us do it. The card packaging was Ian getting a cool idea and wanting to see if he could make it work. We didn’t want to do the booger-glue thing. There was a place in San Francisco where they had a lot of tools, including laser cutters, so he spent a few days down there playing with the laser cutter and seeing if he could make it work, and after a while, he had this thing where you could just snap off the bottom. We knew it would be so much better than just a crappy envelope. So the founders really got into it and realized that though it cost a bit more, it was a much better experience and showed an attention to detail that demonstrated how serious we were about the product and experience.

Peter: Financial services is an area that isn’t generally associated with engaging design. Just based on the attention to detail with the card packaging, I’m guessing Apple is one of your influencers, but who else has influenced your approach to design and what you aspire to produce?

Toby: Well Apple definitely, just because of the amount of care they put into their unboxing experience. But I think we’ve taken much more of an organic approach to our design than someone like Apple. Their design is very slick, ultramodern, and clean, whereas our design has a much more artisanal feel, I think.

We all live in Portland now, and I think that’s a big influence in our aesthetic. Ian is very outdoorsy, and that’s influenced his design with that kind of rustic look. I think a lot of it was our personal aesthetics. A big influence on the Web app that I designed was Gmail, one of the first Web apps to do an Ajax user interface, where everything was really fast. Rdio has been a big influence as well. There’s always been a big war between Spotify and Rdio, and we’ve always chosen Rdio because of the way it looks and works. It’s very clean. I think our design aesthetic has just been informed by everything we’ve observed over the years and enjoyed using.

Peter: Is there anything else you’d like to touch on that you think would be of interest to UXmatters readers?

Toby: Sure, so one thing we haven’t touch on is the customer-service aspect, which is a big deal for us. We want to make sure it’s a great experience when someone phones us as well. With a lot of products, it’s almost impossible to speak to someone if you need help—even for banks.

It may be a generational thing, but I really don’t enjoy speaking on the phone if it’s not necessary. If I can just email my bank and get a response in a timely manner, I much prefer it. So we wanted to give people the ability to do something in an asynchronous way and make sure we responded quickly, and that way, rather than having to stop everything you’re doing and wait on hold, you have other options. And that’s been really beneficial to me personally. A few years ago, when I was on vacation in Turkey with my family, one of my transactions didn’t work, and we didn’t know why. So instead of having to make an international call overnight—because of the time difference—I just sent off a text message, attaching the transaction that hadn't gone through, then came back a short while later to get an answer.

Part of the whole build-a-vision thing is that our customer-service guys don’t have scripts. There’s no set way that they are mandated to help people with problems. They just think about the problem and get help from the rest of the company or whatever. It’s a very human process. A lot of people have said that it’s the best customer support they’ve gotten from any company, which is pretty crazy given that it’s coming from a bank, right? And a lot of that has come from the guidance given to the customer-support folks to just help people out, to be human and humorous. They can joke around if that’s appropriate.

Peter: That aspect came across in your presentation. From the tweets that you showed, it was clear that these were people with a sense of humor who were genuinely enjoying what they were doing.

Toby: Exactly. The whole user experience thing is how are you going to support your customers when they need help? As much as possible, we tried to design the apps so people wouldn’t need support. But I would be very comfortable saying that our customer support is one of our best features. But it’s all about how it all works together. We take a very holistic approach to building the product. I think a lot of companies think about the basic product and making it as awesome as they can. But what do they do when people are in trouble? Things can easily fall apart there. So just taking a very human approach to all aspects of the product is huge for us.

Peter: Toby, thank you so much for your time. It’s great to see how user experience can transform a service like banking.

Toby: Thank you! 

Director at Edgerton Riley

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. Peter is a Director at Edgerton Riley, which provides UX consultancy and research to technology firms. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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