Home / Banking Strategies / User research for improving the customer experience

User research for improving the customer experience


Retail banks need to create digital experiences (e.g. online and mobile banking) that build customers’ trust and increase their perceptions of transparency. According to Forrester, companies providing a superior user experience generated: 14.4% more customers willing to purchase their product; 15.8% fewer customers willing to consider doing business with a competitor; and 16.6% more customers likely to recommend their product or services. 

Conducting user research and using the findings to inform the design of digital experiences is the most direct way to accomplish this. Contrary to popular belief, user research is not the same as market research. Market research examines existing and potential markets to determine if a product is an appropriate fit. The product fit is the unit of analysis.

User research ensures that the product itself is usable and in line with the expectations of those that will be using it. User attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors, and the context of use, are the units of analysis. Retail banks should be conducting user research throughout the design process, with the findings informing the design of future iterations of current and new digital offerings. We believe that no digital strategy is complete unless it incorporates user research.


The toolbox of user research methods is vast, with each method aligned to the specific question needing an answer. This is why every digital channel team in a retail bank should have regular access to a researcher or team of researchers, whether in-house or outsourced. It is not enough for banks to rely on their intuition in designing online experiences or conducting research. Trained researchers need to design and carry out studies, as well as analyze data and interpret the results for design and development teams.

Two common methods employed by user researchers are user interviews and usability testing. Let’s look at each in detail.

User interviews are a key component of kicking off a product design or redesign effort. Interviews are useful for answering questions around knowledge, attitudes, expectations, and goals. Interviewing is not as simple as it sounds. It takes a trained researcher to design and conduct a useful interview study.

Let’s say your bank has engaged in designing a mobile banking application and you want to include remote deposit capture (RDC) as a function. You develop a study to gain insight into potential users’ (current and prospective customers) perceptions and attitudes towards mobile banking, with a focus on RDC. Your interviews then uncover the following common themes:

“I think I’d still prefer to make deposits in the bank. It’s my money and I like knowing it’s in someone’s hands, not on a phone or email.”

“Will it tell you if you don’t take a clear picture?”

“How will I know if the bank has gotten my money? I’ve heard a lot of stories about hackers lately.”

Your researcher analyzes this data and notes the underlying consumer mistrust in the security of RDC. Fortunately, this is something you can directly address in your design. You can, for example, provide messaging to users that states the secure features of RDC and guarantees that the transaction is secure. You can also provide a third-party seal verifying your system’s security; design a screen that reassures users they captured and submitted the picture successfully (or did not); and provide users with a transaction number upon completion.

Best of all, you can truthfully say you have listened and responded to your users’ needs. I’m not saying that your design should be altered so that it addresses every comment made by every user interviewed. What I am saying is that interviews provide you with data to set or support the direction of your design as well as some of the changes you might make.

Usability testing involves asking representative users to complete specific tasks. Usability testing can reveal specific areas of difficulty in a task, the expected amount of time it might take users to complete a task, unclear language in instructions and the overall level of difficulty for users to learn how to use a new product.

Usability testing can begin as soon as designers have created wireframes. We often conduct testing on designs prior to adding color or finalizing what the branding will look like. This allows users to focus on the details of completing the task, not whether they think the design is pretty.

Let’s say your bank is designing a new workflow for adding payees to online bill pay. Your testing reveals that a number of users have difficulty understanding some of the field labels and what information they need to enter. Additionally, some of the users tested state they want to return to the initial bill pay screen after they complete adding a payee. The current workflow returns them to a screen that offers them the option to see the account overview page.

Your researcher analyzes the data and recommends the following: provide discrete tool tips next to field labels explaining what information needs to be entered; re-label some of the fields to be consistent with users’ expectations; and offer multiple paths directly from the last screen of the “add payee” workflow (e.g. buttons to return to “bill pay,” “add another payee,” “account overview” etc.) rather than forcing users back to a specific screen.

These examples for interviewing and usability testing highlight the potential value of engaging in user research. Many additional methods can inform design, reveal usability issues and validate your assumptions.

At a time when budgets are tight, executives will obviously ask whether this kind of user research effort is worth the cost. Because there are substantial upfront costs. For example, if a bank had previously designed products without much input from their customers, a shift in strategic thinking is required. This starts with top-level executives and management staff establishing policy to support a climate where user research thrives.

Then, there are the financial resources spent on either hiring researchers on-staff or outsourced. The budgets of product teams will need to factor in these costs. And, finally, there’s the time spent on product development, although I would argue that the process should become seamless once your product teams have become accustomed to functioning with an experienced researcher.

Designing without data is the equivalent of design by guessing. Now is the time for retail banks to start listening to their customers and incorporate user research into their digital products’ strategy.

Mr. Yocco is design researcher and strategist for Philadelphia-based Intuitive Company. He can be reached at [email protected].