Randy Kaufman

Assistant Director, Digital Innovation

User-Centric Design: Lessons from My Eye-Opening Experience

Topics: Featured.

This past summer we wrapped up a project that's been more fun than anything else I've worked on in my 12-year career at Northwestern Mutual. This was one of those projects where we just knew what we were doing was going to make a big difference. 

My job is to work with our financial representatives in the field and look for opportunities to help them be more efficient and successful at their jobs. One of the things that's historically been a pain point for them has been the tracking of their compensation. Financial representatives work largely on commission, so their checks can vary greatly from one pay period to the next which makes it hard for them to know where they stand financially at any given time. Information about their compensation is fragmented in several different reports which can also make it difficult, especially for newer reps, to set and hit targets and identify opportunities to earn rewards. They often end up reaching out to the call center at our headquarters for this information, which is not very efficient. 

With all of this in mind, my colleagues and I wanted to create a better experience for the financial representatives by building an app that would allow them to track their own compensation on a daily basis. We thought the app might also act as a motivator; if the representatives know they are close to a compensation milestone, they might be inspired to put in a little extra effort before the compensation cycle ends. 

We started by drawing out a plan on a whiteboard for how we might develop this app. Then we formed a collaborative team of experts with diverse skill sets and areas of expertise, called a Tiger Team, with financial representatives in a local network office in Milwaukee, to rapidly create a solution. 

While the advisors loved the idea of the app, they told us our initial plan was way off track. Based on this feedback, we flipped the model on its head, created a prototype, sent it back for more feedback and repeated the feedback loop many times over the course of several months. 

It was a real eye-opening experience getting input early and often from our internal customers. 

For starters, we learned to make no assumptions—even when it came to something as simple as the name of the app. We thought our choice was a no-brainer, but when we shared it with the advisors, it was met with skepticism and didn’t resonate with them. There was a big discussion about the language our advisors actually use to describe how they're tracking toward their goals, and that's how we ended up with the final name: REACH. 

The fact that we went through this iterative process with our end users also let us know–before we ever wrote a line of code–that this app was going to be a hit. Often, if something is built that your target market doesn’t want or won’t use, you will see fairly low adoption rates. REACH broke through because we started with our customer and engaged them along the way as the product was being developed. And it paid off. 

We had a soft launch in June, and in the first month, nearly 1/4 of our field representatives downloaded REACH. Now, our average user visits the app twice a day. The feedback we’ve received so far has been quite positive. Our financial representatives have said things like: "This takes the stress out of me selling, because I know if I'm on pace to reach my goal," and "This actually allows me to plan for my day." Our advisors are using this app to set direction, and that's something that makes us all really proud. Plus, because they spend less time tracking down this type of information, they can spend more time helping their clients achieve financial freedom. 

Getting that kind of positive feedback demonstrates—without a doubt—the value of design thinking and engaging your customers early. If what you build is intuitive, easy and functional, your users will engage. (You've seen a kid with an iPad, right? She can pick it up and pretty much go through the apps without having it explained to her and that's what we were really shooting for. That's why we needed our internal customers to tell us how to get there.) 

As a development team, we still talk about this as one of our greatest successes. And we are absolutely replicating this approach with everything we do moving forward.

Building a Micro Chatbot Platform

We’re hoping to eliminate cumbersome user interfaces within our company and make it faster and easier to get information by unlocking the potential of chat.