Innovation in Digital Banking: There’s no substitute for real-world experience

*José Resendiz originally spoke on this topic during an NCR Corporation TEDx Talk in April 2015

A blog like this may not seem like the forum to talk about undertaking an Olympic triathlon, but it actually makes perfect sense. It didn’t just make me better at my job, it taught me to approach my work in an entirely different way. Specifically, it taught me about customer empathy and experimentation as two good tools to use in innovation.

Personal Innovation:

You see, I used to be quite unhealthy, living on a steady diet of junk food matched with no real exercise regimen. It was a formula for trouble—yummy, sure, but unquestionably harmful. So one day, challenged by friends, I chose to set a really aggressive goal: I would complete an Olympic triathlon. For the uninitiated, that’s a mile-long swim in the ocean, a 25-mile bike ride and then a six-mile run.

But I had a little problem, or more accurately a lot of big problems. I knew how to swim, but I dreaded it, even in pools – and I’d never done it in the ocean. I also hadn’t been on a bike since college, and I mostly remember falling off a lot.

So I did what smart strategists are supposed to do: research. I watched a lot of online videos on swimming and bicycling, read up on triathlons and sought out advice from people I know to be experienced in these physical endeavors. In short, I did my homework.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but it doesn’t work as a substitute for the real thing. The only way to gain first-hand experience is to get out there, whether in training for triathlons or initiating a change management project. I appreciate the wisdom that comes with exhaustive surveys or 72-slide presentations, but out there in the field it can very different. And we don’t know how different it is until we get out there. Only by experiencing first-hand user behavior can we truly understand the root needs and problems our customer have and get the inspiration needed to solve the most important pain points.

To start my Olympic-style effort, I initially took some tentative laps in the pool, which were trouble enough. But then, recognizing the need for real immersion, I went for an open-water clinic, and that was a disaster. I just didn’t know how to tread water. I was trying back flips and back strokes, but I kept floating away from where I needed to be in order to hear the instructor. I also kept doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result each time.

What I really needed was to take a deep breath and stay still, and to me that was a massive risk. But it worked. . . eventually.

Innovation in Banking:

These travails seem very distant from my professional life, but I had all these thoughts in mind during a visit to a federal credit union. We were going through decks and other documents—typical strategy steps—but I knew we needed to get out in the field. I wanted to see how the credit union operates in a real-world context.

So, after an hour of introductions and topline briefings, that’s what we did. We watched closely as credit union employees met with some members in person and spoke to others at the call center. We saw credit union members walk into the branch and take a seat, waiting for their appointment.

At this particular institution, members can make an appointment via mobile or online to see a branch representative. Once they arrive, they check in and wait—and when their turn comes up, they’re led to, for example, the loan officer, who goes through their information. Unlike other branch interactions, the process was manual for the member. It was an experience that could be enhanced with automation.

So we got to work. Only eight hours after we arrived—following introductions, briefings, in-branch interviews and observation, and three hours of furious coding—we had a working prototype. In collaboration with the credit union’s own IT team, we devised a solution that built on geo-location capabilities, a set of beacons and the credit union’s mobile banking app to take the ‘manual’ out of the process. With our solution, when the member approaches the credit union, walks in and gets a coffee, the technology does all the work. It triggers the beacon, instantly alerting branch employees about the pending arrival and relaying all relevant information to the credit union professional.

By bridging the physical divide, the process is instant, automated, and easy. It builds on innovation and engages the member more effectively. That’s the best way to develop customer empathy.

It’s also the kind of advance that was enabled by immersing ourselves in field operations rather than relying exclusively on surveys and reports. We were able to identify opportunities for improvement. Innovation can come from anywhere, but it almost always gets a boost when it starts with customer empathy and some rapid experimentation.

Moving forward, the technology innovations now swirling in the ether—wearable devices, biometrics, The Internet of Things, data connectivity as a whole—will increasingly enable far more revolutionary advances. At the same time, we’re weaning a generation of consumers that expects instant gratification and micro-marketing, and cautious progress will not meet those needs. We have to get out there and take risks and the best way to mitigate risks is to experiment our way through.

I did complete my Olympic triathlon eventually, in better time than I expected, and it was immensely gratifying to overcome my fears. I had mixed feelings during the entire preparation, but it got better as I got better through my experiments in the water, and I’m really happy I took the risk. It paid off for me. It will for you too.

José Resendiz serves as vice president of product design, development, and management as well as Chief Innovation Officer for Digital Insight, an NCR company. In this role, he leads innovation strategy and is responsible for creating new product capabilities that drive growth for consumers, financial institutions and Digital Insight.

Written by Jose Resendiz