Charles Schwab’s Eliel Johnson: Good design builds trust
Financial services sits at the second level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where people need safety and security. That’s just one level above air, water, and food. People take their money very seriously, and while the Charles Schwab team is designing for communicating information about money, their real product is ultimately trust.
Leading the charge is Eliel Johnson, Vice President and Head of User Experience and Design at Charles Schwab, who brings over two decades of expertise and an immeasurable amount of passion for the craft of design. We couldn’t be more proud that he and the Charles Schwab team are part of the InVision community, so we’re excited to share with you what Eliel had to say about team building, design thinking, and what makes designing for financial services so unique.
How is your design team structured?
Within our digital services organization here at Charles Schwab, we have a user experience research and design team focused on designing great software for investors and financial advisors. It’s a mixture of centralized and embedded teams, spread across our San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, and Denver offices.
Our centralized practices team works on our design system, practice development, and design operations. Our UX researchers are focused on identifying user needs and product opportunities. They’re out in the field conducting ethnographic research, and their testing insights are leveraged by our product design teams.
“The best designers are curious optimists by nature, who believe that through insight, ideation, and iteration, we can make things better.”
Our product design directors lead teams focused on our platforms: native iOS and Android apps, and web and desktop software for investors and financial advisors. We also have people focusing on design education, and we’re training our broader organization in design thinking methodologies.
Though we have a variety of specialty areas within the team, we’re all united in a common vision to deliver the best end-to-end client experience. It’s a fun time to be on a team where we’re empowered to use the latest and greatest technology and approaches to do what’s right for clients.
Building a team is a design project. So how do you design a design team?
Building a team starts with hiring the right foundational team members who help establish the culture and also attract talent. The best designers are curious optimists by nature, who believe that through insight, ideation, and iteration, we can make things better—this includes continuously designing our own culture, tools, and craft.
So we recruit looking for that design mindset, for someone with passion and purpose. Our work is meaningful and we focus on finding designers who embrace our vision and passion to build great software for our clients.
What does it mean to have a good team culture? How do you keep a team feeling creatively fulfilled?
There’s a lot that goes into building a healthy design culture. We crafted our principles and values in an all-UX team workshop that defined our shared values, principles, and behavioral norms—what we believe in, how we show up, and how we do the work. We respect the craft and process and maintain high standards for ourselves and the products we ship. Holding supportive, respectful critiques is a vital part of that process.
Creative fulfillment comes in various forms. In the day-to-day, colleagues learn from each other and get inspired by peer work. We send team members to industry conferences frequently and they return to share key takeaways with the group. We promote individual growth through both the variety of work and the opportunity to grow into new roles and responsibilities.
Financial services is an engaging domain to design within, and the complex design challenges we encounter tend to keep designers challenged and inspired. Because our work directly impacts the mission of the company and the needs of our clients, colleagues recognize why it’s meaningful and go home each day with a strong sense of purpose.
What does good design mean for you and your team?
Good design builds trust. A thoughtful, well-crafted experience transmits a message of high-quality, trustworthy products. Consider the sound of closing the door in a well-made car and compare it to the hollow sound of a budget car. Which conveys a better message of safety?
Good design is invisible—making tasks clear and products easy to use. Our clients never call us up to compliment the aesthetics of a button; they call when they can’t complete a task. We want our clients to call for deep, meaningful conversations about their financial future, not about challenges with our product interface.
Good design respects your time. Time is the scarcest resource, so design should anticipate user needs and create end-to-end experiences that are efficient.
Design is ultimately everyone’s responsibility and our UX team facilitates healthy collaboration between design, business, and technology teams. We ship software, not design artifacts, so our design work is most effective when we collaborate and distill the shared best ideas from different points of view.
Any tips for giving great feedback?
Ask more questions so you understand the design thinking process and the context that resulted in the designs you’re looking at. Make sure you’re grounded in the user research and workflow. Understand where the designer is in the process. Is this an early review where things will be rough and you’re exploring multiple directions and divergent thinking? Ask specifically where the designer is seeking feedback, so you’re focused and respect everyone’s time. Do more coaching rather than directing. “Why” is a powerful word.
What do you look for when you’re hiring designers?
Design is the belief that you can improve things, so we look for someone who will approach the work with a “How might we…?” philosophy every day. We look for people who see constraints as a necessary input and catalyst for design work, someone who recognizes that the “beautiful constraints” of a project are what make the work challenging and fun. An optimistic, curious, hardworking attitude is one of the most important aspects we look for when we’re hiring.
We recruit for diversity in their cultural and professional backgrounds and having diversity of thought directly impacts design quality. Many of our researchers and designers have “secret powers”—demonstrably creative work in motion graphics, storyboarding, videography, visual art, and broadcast journalism. We encourage our UX team to find ways to leverage their powers and bring their full talents to the workplace.
We’re looking for collaborators who know how to facilitate the best ideas from a group because that diverse group of “all of us” is smarter than any of us. We look for thoughtfulness in the work that demonstrates empathy, iteration, and collaboration. Novice designers can be insecure and worried about always being “right” or having all the ideas. Experienced designers know how to facilitate a group to produce the best collective design ideas, and there’s humility in that approach.
We expect traceability in their design thinking, which means a connection to real observed user needs and understanding how design supports business objectives. We measure the quality of a design by its ability to solve and end-to-end user need. Design is a team sport and building software is a large team sport—nobody can do that alone.
We look for systems thinkers who can identify how a solution connects to the broader user experience and leverages interaction patterns and mental models we have built with users through our design system. This methodology was expressed well by early-modern architect Eliel Saarinen when he said, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” That’s as true now in software as it was in his day for the physical environment.
What’s unique about designing for financial services? And what’s the most rewarding thing about your work at Charles Schwab?
We’re designing for communicating information about money, but our real product is ultimately trust. Schwab has over $3.3 trillion under management, and every single dollar is important to someone and to us.
Financial services has its own set of boundaries that include highly complex interactions, and federal regulatory and legal and compliance requirements. It’s an exciting time to be working in financial services, with established firms and fintech startups focused on delivering digital innovation, which ultimately benefits users of digital financial products.
We support individual investors—from people just starting out to invest to extremely experienced, active traders. And we also support thousands of financial advisors who sell Schwab products and services. One of my favorite aspects of the job is hearing from clients in our ethnographic research. It really drives home how much our work matters.
We’re designing for much more than money. Our clients maintain long relationships with Schwab, and many have been with us for decades. Our work supports each client’s life goals whether that’s a first house, sending their kids to college, or planning for and enjoying retirement. Knowing that we’re making millions of customers’ lives easier and helping them with really meaningful life goals is extremely rewarding. That drives our design team’s mission.
As a company, Schwab also has innovation and disruption in its DNA. Chuck Schwab brought Wall Street to Main Street 45 years ago and we’ve brought many “firsts” to the industry since, including the first Satisfaction Guarantee and the first Security Guarantee for clients. By putting clients first, the service we provide to them by leveraging technology is key to our efficiency advantage where we return more value to them over time.
We look at ourselves as the original fintech firm, and we’ve never stopped innovating.
Human-centered design seems to be at the heart of what you’re doing at Charles Schwab. Can you tell me a bit more about the approach?
We’ve fully embraced a design thinking approach that’s human-centered at its core, which means we commit to understanding user needs before defining the opportunities.
We start with an empathy phase that grounds each project in user research that includes ethnography and getting out in the field. We use observed user behavior and qualitative and quantitative data to build our personas. We craft experience maps that represent the real journeys of our personas. We bring users into co-creation sessions and iterative design reviews and continue testing with real people as we iterate and progress toward higher fidelity designs.
How does your team use InVision?
InVision integrates with our design and research toolset and enhances our design workflow. It also expedites our design and testing process. We use InVision to prototype our experiences and gain feedback from both users and our internal partners. We continue to leverage its multi-device abilities to review designs across platforms.
We have a robust design system at Schwab and we’re actively exploring how the new Design System Manager can help keep our large team coordinated through shared symbols.
What are the qualities of a good design leader?
A good design leader has these qualities:
- Vision. A unifying vision connects the team’s work to user needs and the broader goals of the organization.
- Passion. Someone who is passionate about the craft of design, has high standards, and respects the work required to deliver great solutions. They inspire the team and set the cultural tone.
- Action. They’re a design facilitator who helps cross-functional teams co-create, and brings the best ideas out of a team. They have the creative confidence to not need to “be right” or author all the design ideas.
- Empathy. A good design leader listens to their team. They focus on coaching and mentoring rather than directing. They also model the empathy for the users that all designers should exhibit.
- Daring. They’re a systems thinker and pattern finder, someone who gets excited by solving problems and enjoys working in the unknown and ambiguity. A good design leader promotes an iterative design philosophy, a culture of curiosity, and permission to explore and take risks.
Do you think everyone at an organization should be trained in design thinking? How do you go about that?
Design thinking is both a mindset and an approach that can fundamentally transform the way organizations design products. But it’s only really effective if it’s adopted by the whole team—design, technology, and product. It’s a human-centered approach that’s grounded in a deep understanding of user needs. Empathy is everyone’s job, and we encourage the whole team to accompany our researchers as we talk with users.
In our experience mapping and ideation sessions, we include the whole team, and we routinely find that a diverse team is more effective in generating great ideas. The cross-functional team remains engaged throughout the iterative prototyping and testing process.
“Design thinking is both a mindset and an approach that can fundamentally transform the way organizations design products.”
Design thinking and Agile methodology are philosophically aligned because they focus on users, promote iterative improvement, believe that you learn through making, stress showing versus telling, and rely on diverse and collaborative teams.
I’ve been personally involved in crafting the design thinking vision at Schwab: creating our design thinking playbooks, developing the training curriculum, and even teaching the methods myself here. My goal is demystifying and democratizing the tools of design thinking for our company. I believe it’s most effective if it comes from within the company and design thinking becomes part of the shared toolkit for building great products.
Photos by Peter Prato.