Design Thinking and the Future of Banking

Design Thinking is a term that many of us have heard, but what exactly does it mean, and how can financial brands benefit from this approach?

Today we’re speaking with Janet Jones, a design thinker with an incredible range of experience in design, strategy, and innovation about design thinking for financial brands. Janet’s experience includes 25 years of interior design, as well as working as a strategic foresight consultant and an instructor in foresight and design, at OCAD. This experience led to working directly with financial brands as an innovator and the first design strategist with Scotiabank’s Digital Factory, to help implement a design-driven culture in the bank’s digital transformation.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to Think Retail. Design Thinking is a term that many of us have heard, but what exactly does it mean, and how can financial brands benefit from this approach?

Today we’re speaking with Janet Jones, a design thinker with an incredible range of experience in design, strategy, and innovation about design thinking for financial brands. Janet’s experience includes 25 years of interior design, as well as working as a strategic foresight consultant and an instructor in foresight and design, at OCAD. This experience led to working directly with financial brands as an innovator and the first design strategist with Scotiabank’s Digital Factory, to help implement a design-driven culture in the bank’s digital transformation.

Janet, welcome and thank you so much for being with us today. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about you and your career?

Janet: Thanks for having me, Melinda. As you mentioned in your introduction, I started out as really a traditional designer, in interior design, and mainly doing conceptual work. And throughout that career, I was always really interested in the “why” behind design. I was always asking a lot of questions. And the last 10 years of that career, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a lot of workshops, conferences, and started to get really interested in something that was quite new at that point, which was design thinking. And during that time, I would bring back a lot of the knowledge that I gained to the firm and started to educate my co-workers about this idea of design thinking. And it started to really resonate.

After about eight years of doing traditional interior design work, I was able to move into a different area, which we had a bit of a difficulty in giving that a title, because it was really unfamiliar to everyone. But we landed on Design and Communication Strategist. And that role within the architectural firm really centered on design research, design strategy. I facilitated workshops and did a lot of trend research. And all this was done without any formal education.

So, what I ended up doing was I really wanted to know the methodologies behind this. And the more I worked in this space, the more I realized that there was really more I needed to learn. So, I ended up doing my Masters of Strategic Foresight and Innovation, Master of Design, at OCAD. And I was in the first cohort. So, guinea pigs and totally ambiguous. Nobody really knew what they were doing at that point. But it was pretty amazing. My cohort was one other designer, and an industrial designer, and the rest were science fiction authors, mathematicians, sustainable experts, policymakers, and forensic physicists. So, it was a pretty amazing space to be working in. And that was really where I saw design thinking in action, was seeing all of these people without a traditional design background but working together to solve problems through design.

Melinda: Wow, what an incredible range of backgrounds to have all together in one group. That’s amazing. I’d like to, if you could just give us a high-level definition of design thinking, because sometimes terms like this, they’re very trendy and they get thrown around, but people like me only have a vague notion of what it exactly means.

Janet: Well, design thinking, since it’s really come into the fore by, mainly through the work of IDEO, has moved from being something that designers do to something that almost anyone can do, using this specific methodology, which is really about designing with the customer in mind, or the human that’s going to be using your product, your service, your environment. So, it’s an iterative process to understand the people behind the design. It’s something where you want to challenge the assumptions, your own assumptions, through rethinking problems, reframing the problem, and always thinking of the customer first. So, using a lot of empathy for what they might be going through, redefining problems along the way. And one of the critical components is prototyping and iterating. So, using the customer along that journey to test some of your assumptions, and making sure that your work is following along their path of needs.

Melinda: So, when we think of financial brands, at least traditional institutions, like big national banks, we’re not typically thinking of design thinking. Why is it important for financial companies to start integrating this kind of thinking into their organizations?

Janet: Sure, that’s a question that comes up a lot with design. People are kind of surprised that the big banks are using design. They have big design departments now. Well, what are designers doing for them? A lot of people still think of design as being about the visual, being about style. And it’s not a new idea that, this idea that good design is good business. And now we have the numbers to back that claim. There’s now an investment tool that shows that companies who integrate design thinking and design into their corporate strategy can outpace their peers by as much as 228 percent. It’s the Design Value Index, and this number grows every year. So, these are companies that we’re familiar with. Apple, IBM, and companies similar to that. Banks have seen that the world is changing, that there are a lot of disruptions, and the banks’ competition is now not other banks, really, but fintechs and smaller financial institutions and disruptors that can move more quickly. They’re nimbler and more risk averse than the larger banks who’ve been operating for 180-some years.

So, they’re really taking a look at what’s making them successful and turning towards design and this idea of design thinking. So, a lot of the sectors that are not traditionally design-focused or design-centered, like insurance, financial, health care is a huge one, they’re making design core to their business and how they’re going to make changes to anticipate a lot of the disruption and innovators within their sectors and within their field.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. So, you worked at the Digital Factory for Scotiabank, and it was started with this intent to bring this new kind of approach to the bank culture. Can you tell us about that?

Janet: Sure. And when I talked about, just a moment ago, that the banks, some of them have been operating for 180 years, well, in the case of Scotia, we always said that they didn’t pay attention to the customer for about 185 years. And that wasn’t really through any fault of their own. They were doing what everyone else had done. They were experts in finance. They knew banking. And they just assumed they knew what was best for their company. Well, Scotiabank started to realize that they were falling far behind competitors, and some of the other banks. And they looked to Silicon Valley, not just financial institutions, but they looked at other organizations that were operating out of Silicon Valley, and thought, “Well, so what makes these different? What makes these organizations different? How are they able to come up with new ideas, new innovations, so quickly?” And they brought this thinking back, and created an entity within Scotiabank, but still slightly outside of it, that would be able to move more quickly than within the confines of the traditional bank. So, Digital Factory was created in 2016. And, with really just a handful of us, and it’s grown from… So, it works in communities of practice, and the design community of practice was a very significant piece of that. It was really a way to be able to communicate the value of design to the larger organization. And one of our mandates was to be able to communicate that in a language that they would be able to understand. So not just in the design language, but in the business language as well, which is very, very critical.

The community grew to about 75 people, the design community, and it encompasses everyone from design strategists, design researchers, behavioral designers, foresight strategists, UX designers, UI, inclusive designers, accessibility experts, and customer advocacy experts. It’s not just people that are working on visual design. It’s really a broad idea of what design can be and do, and it’s really proven successful for them. The Factory has grown to over 450 people, in the Toronto office alone, and there are offices and other digital factories in Latin America. So they’re really able to work in an agile way, but still have, of course, strong ties and work very closely with the big B bank.

Melinda: Right. So, at Digital Factory, you put on a conference called Design Intersect, and when we were talking about this podcast, you told me about some future experiences that you created as part of the conference, which I think is really interesting. Can you tell us a little bit about the process and the experiences that you created and how that was put on?

Janet: Sure. So, in this mandate of bringing design into the organization, into the bank, part of it was educating the bank through a conference, and it was called Design Intersect. It was an annual event, and the one that was put on in 2019, January of 2019, we had the idea of showcasing how looking forward could help the bank in the present day. And this idea of foresight kind of scares people a little bit. It’s sometimes mistaken for predicting the future. And that’s not at all what it’s about. It’s just being able to anticipate what’s happening now in the world, being able to anticipate what could happen, and how to mitigate those events or those changes. So, we took one foresight project and brought to life two scenarios that came out of this foresight research. So, working with a team of people, UX designers, foresight strategist, a service designer, and a couple of other people, engineer, we were able to recreate those scenarios in actual environments in the conference.

So, this is where I used my interior design background. I created two actual environments. We had an actor in one. People came in, visited the physical space, and were brought through this new banking, or alternate future banking experience with an actor, and they could actually feel what, “If banking were this in 2030, it would feel like this.” And the other one was completely isolated, and sort of the opposite experience, where no humans were involved at all. So, it was really, this was one part of the event. We had speakers from all areas of design. It was a really interesting way to bring the bank in and connect them to design. We also did quite often, just aside from the conference, we would also bring customers in to speak to some of the more senior executives at the bank, something that they would not have any way of doing previously. So that helped a lot with selling the idea of design and the importance of it.

Melinda: That’s really interesting, bringing the customers right in because, you know, we hear this a lot from our clients in that the bigger the company, the harder it is to maintain that connection with customers, and small stores or companies, they’re right on the front lines. They’re so connected to their customers in a way that you can’t be in a big organization. So that’s an excellent idea.

You also taught, and you taught a class and you did a student competition with TD Canada Trust. Can you tell us about that?

Janet: Yeah, that was a course I taught that was fourth year students, a small studio course. And TD sponsored the class. So, TD was very focused on sustainable design. And the class was made up of illustrators, graphic designers, advertising, environmental design, and industrial design students. And I brought them through the whole process of working together in diverse groups. So, each group would have an industrial designer, environmental, illustrator. It was a very diverse group. And they were brought through the entire process, from research right through to final product, and we had a few critiques with TD, representatives from TD. And finally, the students had an opportunity to present their final concepts on the executive floor at TD Bank. And it was an amazing experience for them. What they produced was pretty incredible.

The winner of that competition had produced 3D, their idea was 3D printed branches, and they had actually produced some models that were 3D printed. But one of the really successful parts of that course was that it showed the different disciplines the importance of research, the importance of talking to customers, and design thinking, because not every design discipline had that background. So, in working together, industrial design for sure was very focused on design thinking. But it helped the other disciplines really understand there are different ways of approaching a design problem. So, it really became a really successful course. And TD was pretty blown away with the results.

Melinda: Wow, that sounds really amazing.

Janet: Yeah.

Melinda: So, in terms of using design thinking to explore customer personas and segmentation, just so commonly used in the industry, I know you have a wealth of experience in that area. What are some approaches that maybe are a little different, where you use design thinking to find out what a specific generation wants and needs?

Janet: Yeah, so I have done a lot of work with personas. And a lot of times, a persona can be pretty generic. And people are, what I’ve discovered through these years of interviewing and meeting with a lot of customers in their own homes, is that they’re all different. So just because you’re a 45-year-old woman living in the suburbs, doesn’t mean that you’re the same as a 45-year-old woman living in another suburb. It’s not really about that. It’s not really about demographics, in my view. I started to look at it from a more behavioral standpoint. And I really started to educate myself around behavioral design or behavioral economics. Instead of creating personas, I began to create what I called behavioral archetypes, and these were… What are people feeling? What’s their emotional connection to money? How do they approach their finances? It could be somebody that’s 20 years old has the exact same approach as somebody that’s 50 and living in the country, as, you know, it’s really about their emotions towards certain aspects of life, and their experiences and background. It’s not so much these pragmatic demographic attributes that we most often attribute to personas.

So, it does help. I’m not saying that personas are not valuable. We still use personas a lot, but we always make sure that there are behavioral components built into them, and that we don’t just assume that every customer is the same based on where they’re from and their psychographics or demographic situation. If that makes any sense.

Melinda: Right. Yeah, it does. And I think when you’re relying so heavily on demographic information, it’s a little bit of an easy way out in terms of, you know, maybe you’re not going very deep, because you’re just leaning a little too heavily on that. And sometimes you’re missing something big.

Janet: Right. Yeah, exactly.

Melinda: So, if you were going to help a financial brand integrate design thinking into their cultural organization, somebody who doesn’t have this approach within their organization yet, what would be the first three things that you would do?

Janet: Oh, that’s a great question. I guess one of the most important things is to help the key stakeholders adopt a design mindset. It’s really critical for the designers to understand the senior executives’ concerns, and be able to explain how design principles, how design methods can help their organization overcome challenges that they might be facing. It’s also important that designers don’t just speak in their own design language. We need to be able to speak in business terms as well. That’s critical. The other thing I would say is that having the right team. So, on the team, the strategy and research team at the Digital Factory was made up of somebody who had an MBA from Rotman with a hospitality background, somebody else, industrial designer with an MBA, another person, behavioral designer, someone else with a film background. So a really diverse background is key. Everyone brings in their own experiences and points of view. And the richest solutions and ideas come from a really diverse pool of talent.

So that’s a really fundamental issue. We worked with content writers, we worked with service designers, and they all came from completely different backgrounds, UX designers that came from different backgrounds. So that’s really key. Value everyone’s experience. Don’t just tick off boxes from their skills, look at their backgrounds. And finally, I would say in terms of culture, in order to attract and retain the right and best talent, it’s really important to provide them the space and the tools to be able to perform their jobs and be creative in their approach. So, make sure designers and those that are supporting the whole design process have lots of opportunities to engage their creativity.

One of the things that made Digital Factory successful is that we understood the benefits of Microsoft Dynamics 365. And that gave the leadership at the bank an opportunity to see what was possible, and to see that design could bring new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things. So, it just goes back to being able to promote design as linking it back to a way to make good business decisions, and that it’s not just all about us, as designers being able to design something that we think is awesome, but designing something that we think is awesome that will also promote good business, and be able to help you compete.

Melinda: It’s interesting, because we spoke to someone recently who’s in a completely different industry but who’s also got a design background and was also talking about how important it is to growing business and to finding those new things, or things that might disrupt you if you don’t innovate around it ahead of time, right?

Janet: Right. And another thing is that we were really able to link design to business outcomes, and data analytics became a really important partner with design. So, going back to those behavioral archetypes, we were able to use data analytics to really quantify some of those more qualitative approaches and ideas that we had had. So, things like that help promote design to business as well, especially in the financial industry, or sector.

Melinda: Absolutely. Well, you’ve had such an interesting career. And I think, I mean, I hope we’ve given a nice little bite size of some of your really interesting innovations and projects that you’ve worked on for our listeners.

Janet: Thank you so much for having me.

Melinda: I wanted to go back to something Janet mentioned early on in the interview, which is the Design Value Index, which indicates that companies that make design core to their business are outpacing competitors by more than 200 percent. If that’s not a reason to make design more intrinsic to your business, I don’t know what is. I think I’ll leave it at that for today. Thanks for listening, and remember, you can subscribe to Think Retail on iTunes or Spotify so you never miss an episode.


Janet Jones is Design Research Lead, Innovation at OMERS. Her past roles have included Lead Design Strategist at Scotiabank Digital Factory, Instructor at OCAD University and Design & Communications Strategist at HOK.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email