"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe" - Abraham Lincoln
The fintech industry has seen unprecedented growth in the last 10 years. The e-commerce boom, advancement in the e-banking industry, and a behavioral shift of consumers towards the convenience economy have all led to the downfall of legacy financial tools. This has created innumerable opportunities for smart fintech businesses to crop up and also grow leaps and bounds. And, one such company that is making the most of the situation is Recko - a platform that allows smart companies to save time spent on financial operations and focus on their business.
Historically, FinOps professionals went through multiple documents and used complex UIs - which Recko solved seamlessly. And by 2020, Recko had already won the hearts of its customers for 3 years with its capabilities. However, we didn’t want to stop at that. While the platform took care of the core function, we began focusing on building a simpler and more intuitive user interface. This marked the beginning of our journey to reinvent the way FinOps professionals used our product.
Few other determinants that convinced us to redesign the Recko experience -
- The end-users are becoming decision-makers in all the enterprise / B2B domains.
- Consequently, the finance tools of the future have to focus on making the user experience extremely simple, efficient, and powerful.
- The tolerance for bad user experience has returned to naught (where it belongs). The world has become uncompromising when it comes to speed, security, and ease of use.
The product, design, and engineering teams together began chalking out a plan to redefine Recko’s user experience. While we were at it, we realized that it's super easy to push pixels, recolor, redesign the visuals and call it a day. But, that was not what we were aiming at. And customer experience being a competitive battleground, we did not want to take a shortcut. We decided to analyze the philosophical foundation on which Recko is built and dared to question it if need be. We decided to come up with design principles that would not only lay the groundwork for the design team but also guide Recko’s evolution into a next-gen fintech product.
So, we took a line from Abraham Lincoln’s playbook and spent the first four hours sharpening our axe.
Ben Brignell, creator of the awesome Principles.design website outlines design principles as, “A set of considerations that form the basis of any good product.” We call them ‘Contribution covenants.’ They are the fundamental guidelines that all contributors have agreed to follow. They help us steer growth and drive innovations. They are the foundation on which great products can be built and great processes can be defined.
The key things that design principles help you achieve are -
1. Aligning contributors to a north star
We have often heard 'Two designers, three opinions'. Even though we spend a lot of time discussing technicalities like our product's features and capabilities, we rarely discuss the philosophy behind what we are building. This is why each designer could end up creating different designs with the same set of requirements. A design principle helps you and your teammates look in the same direction.
2. Assisting decisions by providing a framework
Choosing between the right and wrong option is not as straightforward as it seems. Often you are presented with two options where both of them appear to be correct. This is when design principles help you assess them. They allow you to judge these options against the standard parameters that you agreed upon. You are likely to identify ‘your right answer’ by the end of the assessment.
3. Avoiding opinions, biases and impulsive decisions
Every team has influencers, sometimes it is the leaders who are convinced of their ideas, and sometimes it is juniors who have fallen in love with their designs. In all such cases, it is very easy for biases to creep into decision-making. Design principles provide you with the writ to defend your case.
But, while design principles are widely adored as a critical part of the process, it is easy to end up with irrelevant, unachievable, or unusable principles. It would be a shame if you take all these efforts and the design principles remain unused in the distant corners of a PowerPoint presentation. Here are some ways this entire exercise of defining design principles may not pan out as expected:
1. Balance vagueness and rigidity
It does not help to have one-word principles like ‘Accuracy’. Because Accuracy can be interpreted in various ways. It is better to define what ‘accuracy’ means to the team and what it does not. Simultaneously, design principles should not be as rigid as laws, and there should be room for interpretation and experimentation. They should guide rather than restrict. It would be best if you aimed to achieve a balance between these two. Although there is no way to evaluate if you have found the balance, you will know when you do. And don't be afraid to course-correct as needed.
2. Skip the obvious
The design industry has matured with great velocity over the last decade. From struggling to establish its importance to being a mere buzzword and finally getting a seat at the table. Over this period, designers have grown and a lot of aspirational things have become obvious now. Of course, every product needs to be ‘easy to use’ and other obvious things. Let's imbibe them in the product by default rather than setting it as a principle.
3. Make them actionable and achievable
Almost self-explanatory, design principles need to be achievable. ‘Creating the perfect product’ cannot be a great principle in a world where we are aware of how context-driven, constrained, and opinionated design is. Perfection does not exist. As creators, we always make known compromises, and it is difficult to make a product ‘perfect’ - which renders such a principle useless.
4. Tie them to your values
As much as we would like to believe, design is not the only pillar of a product. Engineering counterparts and business logic also govern how the product is built. Design cannot be effective if it operates in a silo, it has to collaborate with other functions to succeed. Thus, design principles cannot be disconnected from the company’s values or philosophy of your engineering team. For eg - Minimalism can not only be a Design principle but also a principle of API design or a management mantra for a company’s finances. When all these functions believe in the same values cohesively, the impact is bound to grow multifold.
As we mentioned, the design team alone is not going to consume the design principles. Hence, it is imperative to account for the perspective of your fellow co-creators. We divided this process into three parts :
1. Stakeholder’s Vision
In this phase, we tried to understand the vision of Recko’s founders - Saurya and Prashant. We organized free-flowing unstructured interview sessions to understand the journey of Recko so far and how we are planning to scale in the future. The design team tried to identify things that were important for the leaders. Here is a glimpse of our notes from the interview :
2. Team’s Mission
A company is just a collection of people working to achieve a common goal. Hence the expectations and ambitions of the workforce need to be acknowledged too. To understand how our colleagues felt about Recko, we initiated a chain of short surveys. The surveys included questions about how each contributor perceived the company and how his or her personal goals tied with it. Here is a glimpse of indicators from the survey results :
3. User’s Needs
Coming to the most critical part of the equation - the user. We build things for our users, and hence their needs become the most critical factor. The design principles cannot be agnostic to the expectations of the user. Once Henry Ford said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses". We respectfully agree to it but looking at how aware, evolved, and pragmatic the users are today, we are sure their expectations supersede creators' ability to reach them. To understand the user sentiment, we conducted short interviews with some of our expert users. Here are some findings :
After assimilating, massaging and interpreting the information gathered, we shortlisted the following principles and pledged to follow them -
Be consistent in experience, comprehensive in assistance, and transparent in communication
By definition ‘Trust’ is a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. But how do we make a product trustworthy? A digital product is primarily a combination of three things - Interface (Visual), Content (Written), and Flows (Journey).
Visuals subconsciously reinforce emotions in the user. Lindgaard’s research in 2006 states - People makes first impressions of a digital product in the first 50 milliseconds. A Google research in 2012 that states it is as low as 17 milliseconds. That is 0.0017 seconds, to be precise. Because visuals are so critical, we designed a new identity for Recko and created trust evoking marketing collaterals.
Next, we spent a considerable amount of time and effort in walking through workflows and identifying inconsistencies in the way they were stitched together. We chose to create a design system and experience framework ground up. This was to ensure that our components behaved the same way universally and the flows followed the same progression. There were no shocks or surprises hidden behind the buttons.
For every roadblock, we aimed to provide enough information to the user. If needed, the help section is just a click away. We ensured that the messaging is clear and accurate. We avoided ambiguity (words such as ‘may and might) and numerical approximation. We provided users with definite numerical data accurate to the 3rd decimal - instilling confidence.
Provide meaningful options and purposeful information to simplify decision making
There are infinite things we could provide the user with. But designing great product experiences involves knowing where to draw the line. When choices are abundant, users often experience analysis paralysis and when the outcome is unguessable, anxiety ensues. That's why when we started designing the platform, we focussed on providing things that have clarity and purpose. For example, when designing filters, we could have given a dozen options, but we decided to prioritize only the ones users used the most.
The dashboard in the Recko platform is one of the many things that we are proud of. We could have provided the user with a horde of statistics, fancy graphs, and charts that let them figure out the insights. But can you guess the number of visualizations we provided on the dashboard? TWO. It's all that was required and our customer’s encouraging feedback validated that.
Complement human emotions positively
The moment you read the word ‘Delight in UX’, do you imagine an illustration of a cute cake sitting on a pretty modal? A lot of times we confuse delight with happy visual feedback. Although they add to the user’s positive experience, the real delight lies in exceeding the user’s expectations. A good designer is someone who gives users something they want and a great designer is someone who gives users something they don’t know they always wanted.
We started identifying opportunities in the product where we could proactively show information that would complement the user’s intentions with confidence.
We summarised things for users so that it became easier for them to make decisions. For every table, we presented a summary on the top. For every flow, we presented an overview. And for every decision, we presented a recommendation.
For example, when a user selects millions of transactions for reconciling, we take the additional effort to add them up and show a visual summary before going ahead. This small change was much appreciated among our existing customer base.
In the end, it won't matter how honestly you followed the process and how clearly you defined the principles. There will be enough crossroads where one of these principles will get challenged due to time constraints, business goals, or budget. It’s important to stand by the principles and follow-through.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson -
"In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock"
The process of defining and abiding by the design principles at Recko was a collective effort of all the team members. Special appreciation goes to - Rohit, Aditya, Vignesh, and Suwardhan for all their efforts. Cheers to Saurya and Prashant for really believing in building a design-first enterprise company and enabling the design team to aim higher.