We’re putting together a series of interviews with UX leaders inside the UK’s top finance and ecommerce companies. Our first UX Insider interview is with David Oliver who’s a User Experience Manager working at Liverpool Victoria (LV=).
Tell us a little bit about LV=, and your role there?
LV= is the UK’s largest friendly society. We have more than 5 million members and customers. We specialise in insurance and retirement and have offices around the UK with our headquarters in sunny Bournemouth, where I’m based.
I look after UX, analytics, and a bit of software development as well. What that means for us is website optimization, and the overall digital experience of our current estate. Then there’s launching new online propositions and getting the best UX we can from them. We go through a whole UCD process with everything we launch.
What are your biggest challenges in the next 12 months?
Probably people, from an internal standpoint. We’ve got a good process now and because of the work we’ve been doing over the last couple of years, most of the business is bought into UX, what it is, what it means, and the methods within it. A couple of years ago, no one really knew what it was. Now I’ve got discussions at a board level where people are talking about UX and what they need to do to account for it in projects, which is great. That’s a really big win, but because of this tempo, and the work we have to deliver now, we need people to be able to do it.
As in any big company, budgets are tight, and recruiting people is sometimes given a lower priority to just getting on with the projects. The biggest challenge is going to be getting new people in to meet project demands. That could be anything from analysts, people to build the reports, and people to process the data. Information architects and more visual designers are something I’m in fairly dire need of as well.
“Mobile is still huge for us. Half of our customers are on mobile, and everything we do is not just responsively done now, but it’s mobile first.”
Thinking about the LV= user experience, what upcoming changes are likely to have an effect on the way that customers buy insurance in the next couple of years?
That’s a really good question, and it’s something that’s talked about a lot. There are loads of technical innovations around. There’s lots of potential. The likes of PruHealth, or Vitality now, are using lots of health tracking data to offer discounts on insurance. Albeit, it’s fairly primitive at the moment, but it’s something I’ve looked into a lot – wearable technology – and how we can link that up to our systems.
In the general insurance race, technology like Nest, where your home is becoming automated, is becoming a reality. It could have quite a big impact on things like home insurance and how premiums and risk is measured.
GPS tracking is fairly substantial in the car industry, and there’s a lot of buzz about that. We’ve just released an app which will track your driving behaviour, and potentially offer you discounts on how well you drive. The Internet of Things is going to be a big disruptor. It’s immature at the moment, and it’s on everyone’s radar, but there’s not much happening really. It’s probably 3-to-5 years out right now.
Obviously, mobile is still huge for us. Half of our customers are on mobile, and everything we do is not just responsively done now, but it’s mobile first.
Big data is a big one. Maybe not in the UX space so much, but in terms of understanding customers and marketing in an innovative way. It’s one of the phrases that everyone’s talked about over the last few years, and no one really understands. I think we’re making quite good progress in that space.
“When I started out, the biggest part of my job was influencing people, and explaining why I needed budget to do user research.”
Overcoming internal politics is a theme that comes up quite a bit for people in similar roles. Is that the same for you?
Yes certainly, any big corporate will have elements of politics that you need to overcome in order to do your job. When I started out, the biggest part of my job was influencing people, and explaining why I needed budget to do user research. At the time it was unheard of, and no one knew what it was, or why we were doing it.
That has now changed into a culture of research across the group, which is really good, because everyone’s doing it, and because of that, there’s a fair amount of politics over who owns what; what the best method is; and who’s going to take the credit for a good bit of work, things like that. Which is all quite silly, but it’s just what happens in big companies.
I try not to get too tangled up in the world of politics. I have just proven my points through good research. Once you can prove something through good research, and you’ve got big numbers behind it, it doesn’t really take much more for people to see what you’ve done is the right thing.
When you work on a project, how do you keep your team focused on providing good UX when you’re all facing pressure from other departments in the business?
Yes, that can be really challenging, actually. Especially when I’ve got visual designers working on the UX project, and they’re looking to design and make things look pretty. Although they’re good at UX now, they still have a tendency, and naturally will have a tendency to go for style over ease of use. Couple that with a lot of stakeholders who will be more easily swayed by something that looks amazing. The temptation is just to design something that looks amazing, and everyone goes, “Wow! It’s great to look at this,” but then not come back to the ease and efficiency thing.
When starting out on a project, although we have a UCD framework, we will design a bespoke method for that project. I’m strict with sticking to it (UCD), and the guys in my team are strict with sticking to that process. Where it tends to fall down is when other teams are doing user research, and they don’t stick to that process. It’s all a bit ad hoc, and there’s no clear ownership. That can be the most difficult issue.
The answer to that is really to have a central owner of UX within a group, and someone who can define what process fits with what project. Then everyone else follows it. We haven’t quite got there yet, but that’s something we need to strive for.
“My biggest mistake was not arguing enough on the side of the user, and letting it go.”
What do you say is the biggest threat to the success of UX inside LV=?
The biggest threat to success is a rapidly changing environment. More than budget, more than people. Because often we’re halfway through a project, and something else comes up which is driven by some external factor. Maybe there’s an acquisition at a board level that no one knows about, and then, all of sudden you have to support that.
Or, maybe, there’s a bit of legislation that the Chancellor announces, which is what drove all of our retirement work this year. All of a sudden, we had to stop in our tracks on what we were doing, and focus on innovation for retirement.
When that happens, and we’re mid-flow through a process, we have to drop what we’re doing, and do something else. I don’t think that’s just financial services, I think that’s probably across the board. It’s not the biggest threat to delivering stuff, but it’s the biggest threat to delivering within a good user experience framework because it’s easy to say, “Oh, we won’t do that bit of research, we’ll just get it delivered.”
My biggest drive is to stop that from happening and to convince people that it is worth doing the user research no matter what kind of external pressure is happening.
What’s the biggest UX mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from that?
I don’t think the biggest UX mistake I’ve made is in delivering a website, or an app, or whatever. I think everything that we have delivered, if it hasn’t been quite right, we’ve then optimized it, and we’ve got quite a good process in place to do that.
However, the biggest mistake I’ve made is allowing conversations to win over UX. Often there will be a sales need, a compliance need, or a marketing need which will often overshadow the UX need. I can think of an occasion where we launched a product, and all the research that we’d done, through you guys actually, was telling us that a certain way we launched it wasn’t the right thing to do.
My biggest mistake was not arguing enough on the side of the user, and letting it go.
In hindsight, if you had argued harder for the UX side, do you think the business would have got more leads as a result?
I think if we’d spent longer analysing what the user issue was, we could have worked our way around it, still generated leads, and still had the best outcome to not annoy people online.
I only know that now because it went live for a while, and then we went and fixed it with optimisations to improve it. But, we could never quite get it back to where it should have been. I can see from the numbers exactly what the problem is, and it completely supports the research that we did upfront.
Part of the problem was that I was relatively junior at the time, and I was debating against a lot of very senior people who owned the money and thus the budget. It’s quite a hard thing to do, but it’s important to do it.
“We have some form of usability testing in every project”
What is your UX process at LV=?
We have an overriding UX, or UCD process rather, which is formed from the ISO document. Human factors engineering, I think its ISO 9241 [Check out this article What on earth is ISO 9241?]. The principle starts with research, and ends with research, and then iterates. The principle differs from the reality in truth. The reality starts with requirements or user stories normally, with minimal research up front. Then we design, prototype tests, or some other type of research, and then evaluate, refine, launch, and then iterate where we can.
In a perfect world, we’ll start with upfront research, focused more around the proposition than the user experience, but that will always drive what the user experience is to a large extent. Because of the pressures of working in a big corporation, that doesn’t happen as often as it should.
How do you go about proving that there’s something wrong with the user experience?
Proving something is wrong is the easy bit. What I normally do is prove there’s a problem using some type of data analysis, or on-site analysis, heat mapping software, or session replay. But you can’t usually tell why there’s a problem. That’s why we use user research to combine the two, and work out why users are suffering with whatever the problem may be.
That’s the easy bit really. The difficult bit is putting a business case behind it. Sometimes that’s easy. If X number of people are dropping out at Y stage, you can hypothesize that if you fix that problem you’re going to get a conversion uplift, and that translates to financial uplift.
But sometimes it’s really hard with softer issues that are really hard to quantify. Where you know that people are dropping, or struggling in the process, or not engaging in a bit of content which will lead to sales. You can’t really quantify it through analysis, in which case you have to find budget to quantify it through some type of user research. That’s a difficult conversation to have because you’ve got no proof that it’s going to add value. You’ve got to convince someone it’s worth doing the research just in case, and sometimes it doesn’t work out, and you’re like, “Well, sorry.”
More often than not it works out, so you need the experience to recognize when something is going to be of value.
What about the problems that you don’t know exist? How do you deal with that?
It’s a good question because we don’t do much of it at the moment. One of the ways I’m going to build my team is to have that as a regular capability to investigate what those problems might be. You can do that through things like regular testing or regular focus groups, and you get people to discuss different problems they’ve encountered, or benchmark studies.
The problem is that if you can’t see it through the numbers, where do you start?
One way of getting around that is having really, really detailed and robust analytics capabilities. You’re never going to get all the answers, but you can have a safe bet you’re going to get a lot of them.
To be honest, we’re not very good at just doing holistic audits, and holistic reviews of our overall UX, and that’s because projects or BAU (Business as Usual) get in the way. One of the strategies I am working on is that very subject, that strategic projects shouldn’t only be driven by legislation or business needs. They should be driven by those holistic problems. But until we do that high level of research we won’t know what those projects are, and that’s something over the next year I’m going to start introducing.
What UX methods do you find the most useful for helping you get your job done?
By far it’s usability testing. We have some form of usability testing in every project, often supported by other types of user research. We always fall back to that. I don’t test on wireframes necessarily. I like to test on high fidelity prototypes or built websites, just because I’ve had bad experiences with that in the past.
That is the foundation of everything we do really. Because of the nature of what we sell, it tends to be fairly linear:
- user lands on a website
- user does a bit of research on the website
- user clicks and gets a quote
- user buys something
I would like to start doing research around multiple visits and marketing attribution, which is something we haven’t done. Something which would be really fascinating. Because of the linear path to purchase, testing is the best tool we have to determine why people are suffering and what we can do about it.
“It’s nice to have an external view because you can often get tunnel vision on what you’re working on, and it’s easy to get biased opinions.”
Do you outsource parts of the UX process, and which parts, and why?
Obviously we outsource testing because it’s very convenient for us to do so. To be honest, it takes the hassle away from us doing it, because there’s a lot of admin involved. That’s probably our biggest reason for doing it. Secondly, it’s nice to have an external view because you can often get tunnel vision on what you’re working on, and it’s easy to get biased opinions. I do it, and if I’m doing it, the other guys are certainly going to be doing it.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Of late, I’ve been going to LinkedIn for inspiration. A couple of years ago, LinkedIn was all very heavy business, and a bit dull. I’m finding a lot of UX guys are now writing very interesting articles, and I’ve been trying to think of a subject to do one myself actually.
I used to go to sites like UX Booth a lot. I find those articles quite stock, quite obvious, the stuff that anyone who knows what they’re talking about is already probably going to know. I find the LinkedIn ones more thought provoking with useful comments, engagement, and conversation too. I think LinkedIn’s a really good platform for UXers nowadays because of the Groups as well.
Outside of that, I get inspiration from just talking to people and not being afraid to ask stuff that I don’t know. I do that a lot, I’ll just ask people things, and if I don’t know it there’s no shame in that.
Are there any websites that you look at, and think, “Wow! They’ve nailed their UX”?
No, there aren’t. I’ve never had that experience. There’s nothing really that I’ve ever seen that’s blown me away UX-wise. Visual design-wise, yes, there’s loads of cool stuff out there. I really like things like the Windows 8 tile effect. That was quite a big thing for me. I think windows 8 on a touch screen is great, although it gets a lot of stick, to me its very natural and I believe the learning effect from previous versions of windows massively biased the reaction it got.
What’s your vision for UX in the future?
I like to think it won’t exist one day. I can’t imagine in our society that we would ever get there, because commerciality is always going to play such a heavy role that things will always be badly designed to an extent.
In some ways you could say that every time that a product gets shipped with an instruction manual, it’s bad UX.
Certainly, within LV’s environment, we’ve already got to the stage where every digital product pretty much goes through a UCD process, which is great. My short-to-mid term vision is for business strategy to be directed by user experience research. That’s my target for the next couple of years.
Long term, I don’t know what more you can do beyond that really. I think if every company can get to that place, every interactive experience that you use on the web, or on a tablet, or on an app is just going to be so simple.
“Evidence based analysis really is the best way to influence anyone at that level”
Knowing what you know now, what sort of advice would you give to someone starting a similar role to yours?
The biggest challenge they will have in a large corporate is by far the ability to influence those at a higher level than you. The budget holders.
The best advice I could give is be careful in the way you go about it. Don’t be arrogant with, the“I know better because I’m doing it on behalf of the users,” angle. Just go away, do your own study, put it in front of someone who has a lot of influence, and prove it.
That’s a mistake I made quite a lot, and it’s a mistake that a lot of people have made in big corporates, got frustrated, and left. If you have to take a laptop down to Starbucks and sit in there with a load of random people, and pay them a fiver to test your website, you film it to get your evidence, then do it. Because, people like that, and evidence based analysis really is the best way to influence anyone at that level. That’s the advice I’d give.