An Interview with Gregory Ek

financial services

The Mind that Designed the UX Octopus: A Conversation with ING’s Design Lead

Gregory Ek Gives the Inside Story on How Design Functions in Financial Services

August 21, 2017
by Zach Hyman

I met Gregory Ek when he spoke at UX STRAT, an international user-experience conference, in June. After watching his excellent presentation about his team at ING’s efforts to create a more “human” chat, we got to talking and he agreed to sit down for a longer conversation.

Ek brings a high level of dedication and wide range of skills to his team’s work at ING, and before his current role he worked at some of the companies on the forefront of mobile and digital innovation today, including Nokia, Samsung, and Microsoft. I enjoyed getting the chance to chat with him about a wide range of ideas—from describing the UX design process through animal metaphors, to the delicate balance protecting users’ trust in your company and enabling the most connected and convenient experience for them.

The audience at UXStrat clearly loved your UX Octopus idea. Have you found you’ve had to describe this concept differently to different stakeholders inside of the broader ING organization? How did you initially develop this metaphor with the team, and has it (or its thinking) spread outside of the design team to others? How have you tried to explain and advocate for your team’s work inside of a financial-focused organization?

The octopus metaphor was an accidental discovery that happened during the creation of the UXStrat presentation (based on our own internal project final presentation material). When we were looking at the different phases of involvement for the project, we had the circular design process, but as an output we saw distinct activities coming out from it. It was then easy to see a head and several tentacles. For UX STRAT we had the choice to use Hydra logo (a nerdy reference to the Marvel universe), or design our own octopus. The little twist we did was to create an octopus with the ING "lion eyes." We haven’t spread this metaphor and explanation beyond the design team yet, but it is something we might do later.

We’re currently planning a sort of roadshow within the company that will help us explain our “design mandate”—what to expect when you engage with the design team, when you should engage with us, and we’ve created materials and integrated internal success stories to help explain this, but we haven’t added in the octopus yet. While this could be a sticky idea, we’ve got other ideas and materials that could help us better explain things. So even though the octopus may not show up in the roadshow, it may appear later on, since you aren’t the first to call out how well this model works at showing our process.

Thinking about your upcoming road show, what’s one “dream” department that you wish your team could work with next?

My dream is that everyone at ING could understand the sorts of problems that design can help solve. One challenge we’re facing is that not everyone understands when to use design, or the value of integrating design thinking in from the very early stages. By doing this roadshow, we want to help the organization learn more about how design can positively influence the entire process. It’s important, though, that if there are no resources available not to hire the first designer that a team can find, though—we have to make sure any designers that are brought in to work with us are aligned on ING’s branding, ING’s interaction patterns, and the other ways in which we’re trying to create one, single ING experience.

In our work with BBVA, we discovered that while creating digital prototypes was simple, actually getting the organization to “think digitally” took multiple years of working across the company and silos. As you work to have ING adopt not just digital touch points but a new, design-focused mindset, what challenges have you met along the way convincing stakeholders?

It is interesting because there is absolutely no need to convince anyone in ING that we have to go digital. However, adopting a design-focused mindset is not without its challenges. The most important challenge is related to the size of the company and the size of the design team. We cannot be everywhere and serving everybody at the same time, so we prioritize our engagements. The impact is that we have different maturity levels across the company. Other challenges we face, I believe, are classic and encountered elsewhere: the role of design as a discipline to steer the company vision and not just execute one… the difficulty to convince everybody that good design is good business… and so on.

According to John Maeda’s 2017 Design in Tech report, it is becoming clearer that the role of writing and content strategy is expanding within design, a field that used to primarily be concerned with how things looked, rather than how they read. As your design team has expanded into designing not just interfaces, but the conversations that happen within them, how have you had to change how you lead design at ING?

I absolutely agree with Maeda, and actually shared his report internally to highlight the risk of believing that after few trainings that anyone can be ready to write content. We have a chapter [of employees] dedicated to content, and we closely work with them, since only few designers are trained and experienced as copywriters. That way, we can always rely on this chapter [of content experts] during the development process.

More broadly, do you have general advice for designers on a small team trying to steer the ship of large financial organizations towards a more “human-centric” approach? Your stories were fascinating, and it made me wish I was in the room with you to see not just how your team did their design work, but how you explained and advocated for that work within the broader organization. Could you walk us through any examples of how you did this?

Passion can be a viral thing! People will feel it when you genuinely believe what you are talking about. It is the very first thing you must have. But then, as I explained during the UX STRAT presentation, it’s all about having "wow moments," a credible roadmap, and a real prototype with use cases that anyone in the company can relate to. The best concepts are the concepts that seems so obvious you wonder why nobody designed them before. Since we are shifting the discussion from the technical aspect of chatbot to the emotional aspect of a conversation, the audience can relate easily, and will themselves understand the reward associated with delivering this solution to our customers ASAP.

Too few banks approach their customers in a deep and embedded way, but obviously if you’re trying to design how you speak with them, you must have to go deep with research into how people really talk. Do you have different varieties of tone for older/younger folks from different cultures or markets? How do you go about creating a vernacular vocabulary for your chatbot?

We have only one tone for retail banking, and it was carefully defined to match who we are and want to be known for. In other words, we have a branded, singular ING tone of voice for all interactions in retail banking. This tone will differ for private or corporate banking.

However, this was indeed something we wanted to assess during this project. Luckily, we found out that the tone of voice used for the conversations matched exactly the expectation of the customers, so the friendly tone was, for example, never considered unprofessional since this is what our customers expected when interacting with us.

Your prototyping process sounds fascinating, and particularly your use of Facebook’s Chatfuel. Are there any challenges that this creates around privacy? Down the road about legal concerns? What if your bot begins giving questionable financial advice?

Our prototyping process is actually quite orthodox. We simply want to make sure we don’t spend too much time to answer one or two big questions, but instead get smarter every time. The first prototype took us one afternoon. The second prototype, using the learning of the first round, was done in one day, while the last prototype using API.AI took around 1 week.

Privacy is paramount for us and that is why we defined our strategy around it. This was also confirmed during the various interviews and test. Dialogs can start wherever we are present or expected with the users, but as soon as we are dealing with sensitive data, the conversation will happen behind our protected and trusted environment. So you can ask where is the nearest office on any public chat application but if you want to know how much money you have on your account, then you will be nicely directed to the ING digital solution.

filed in: financial services, user experience, prototyping

About the Author

  • Hyman Zach
    Zach Hyman

    Zach has helped plan and run product and services projects around mobile phones, healthcare, agriculture, transportation, and education, and has worked in China, Myanmar/Burma, Vietnam, Jordan, Italy, Thailand, Denmark, England, and the United States.

    Zach’s writing has appeared in Fast Company, The Atlantic, Touchpoint—The Journal of Service Design, and Core77. He has guest lectured for classes at Stanford’s, Carnegie Mellon School of Design, and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and has presented at MidwestUX and the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference.

    Before enrolling at Carnegie Mellon School of Design, he received a Fulbright grant to conduct ethnographic research into innovation across China. Zach speaks Burmese and Mandarin Chinese.