YouX: How customer-centric design is shaping Absa’s digital offering

03 November 2017

We’ve all heard that old adage, ‘the customer always comes first’, but few comprehend the meaning of that sentiment, as well as Craig Corte, Head of Design at Absa.

A charismatic and pragmatic leader, Craig heads a team of about 40 employees, consisting of design researchers, experience engineers, prototyping, wireframing, UX (User Experience) and UI (User Interface) specialists, all dedicated to the pursuit of the most seamless, intuitive customer experience possible, across the digital spectrum. The Design team operates throughout the bank, both independently and in support of the numerous business units, and is increasingly involved in nearly all stages of the digital product/service lifecycle, from initial strategy and customer value proposition all the way through to implementation and ongoing iterative improvement.

“My official title is Head of Design and Customer Experience, but please leave out the second part, because it’s impossible to actually own customer experience,” Craig says jokingly, making it clear that he has a profound respect for the individual customer journey. It seems entirely apt then that Craig would be one of the driving forces behind Absa’s new customer-centric approach to digital design; he understands that, undoubtedly, the customer always comes first.

Taking a step back to leap forward

As with most significant corporate change, Absa’s shift to customer-centric design started by identifying a shortcoming, the fact that they were underperforming in a specific area: in this case, the digital space.

“It began with a fundamental analysis of our digital strategy and the realisation that there wasn’t a clear, distinct understanding of what we wanted to be as a digital bank,” admits Craig. “We were very good at responding to business needs, analysing and implementing the features and fixes that our business clients wanted, but we fell short when it came to conceptualising the digital experience from the perspective of the individual customer. We weren’t connecting with the individual user and, being ranked fifth out of the big five banks for digital banking, we were suffering the consequences.”

Craig and the executive team at Absa, recognised that there was a clear and pressing need to overhaul the Bank’s digital experience, with the end goal of improving return on investment, generating more leads and enhancing customer satisfaction in this sphere. So, with a clear mandate and having identified the key areas to address, the Design team set about revolutionising Absa’s digital presence.

Mobile first: the Absa app

The Absa app was unanimously chosen as the first priority in the design overhaul. The existing app – although highly functional – wasn’t designed with the customer in mind. This was evident in the low rates of adoption during its lifecycle, with just over 300 000 active users on the app out of roughly 1.3 million total digital users. A fully agile, cross-functional development team was formed, creating a diverse amalgam of employees and skills from across the bank with the sole objective of understanding the app, its users, its trajectory, how it would gain market share and how it would continue to improve iteratively, indefinitely.  With the team in place, they opted to start at the most logical point for the rebuild: the customer.

They conducted over 600 customer interviews, collating feedback and drilling down into the data to find out what the customer truly wanted and needed from a banking app. What followed was a rigorous process of prototyping and testing in what Craig describes as ‘co-creating with the customer’, until the new, intuitive and powerful Absa app was launched to the public.

“Iterative design dictates that we are constantly aiming to improve on the app. Though it was only launched a few months ago, we’re already working on the fifth build. Currently we’re going live with an update every month or so, but we’re aiming to bring this down to every two weeks. Whether it’s just subtle improvements to the UI/UX, bug fixes or new feature releases, we want to be responding to user feedback and anticipating what our user needs from the app. Ultimately we’re striving to strike a balance between the needs of the business and the needs of the user,” Craig says with the slightest hint of pride.

Online banking 2.0: the Absa website

“Our approach to redesigning the website began with the insight that most, if not all, banking sites are fundamentally too complicated.” Craig tells me. “There’s been this traditional corporate approach of simply dumping offline brochure text into a website and it was no different for us. The old website had over 7 500 pages and our deep analytics showed that 90% of the traffic on the site was limited to just three of those pages!”

There was a clear lack of purpose for users of the old website, and the lack of clear user journeys was resulting in sub-optimal lead generation and very little contribution to building Absa’s brand digitally. To combat this, Craig describes how the Design team adopted a principle he calls ‘progressive disclosure’, which means only showing the customer what they need to see at any given time. Essentially the customer would be asked what they want to do on the site, such as opening a savings account or applying for a home loan, before being directed to the next logical step on the journey, until reaching the end goal of signing-up, clicking-through or applying. Leading the customer through the journey, while constantly engaging them around product benefits and ensuring they aren’t overloaded with information, is what progressive disclosure is all about.

The redesign took roughly a year and a half from conception to launch and saw the website evolve from a complicated repository of 7 500 pages to a clean, minimal experience of just over 700 total pages, most of which the user won’t ever see until they need to.

“We also moved the entire website to the cloud,” Craig laughs, “which is consistent with the Bank’s move to becoming a world-class technology company. It was a big team effort. We’re all about collaboration, after all!”

What a difference a change makes

It’s all well and good talking about how much better Absa’s digital offering looks and how much cleaner and more intuitive the UX is, but in the world of big business, what really matters is the numbers. Investing considerable resources into the digital overhaul would need a considerable return on investment and that’s exactly what the Absa team is beginning to see.

  • Current app growth is more than 10 times what it was for the previous app at the same stage in its lifecycle, with:
    • 8 0 000+ active users, and
    • 1 500+ daily downloads – all in the first four months.
  • The Absa website has seen a 30% increase in average monthly revenues.
  • Lead generation from the website (now Absa’s primary sales tool) has improved significantly – in some cases up by as much as 40%.

What makes these numbers so compelling is the fact that Absa didn’t alter the actual banking products in any way; the change was focused solely on the design of the digital channels’ UX/UI. While some may describe this as simply a ‘cosmetic’ change, in essence Craig and his team are starting to revolutionise the customer journey. The user is now being led and engaged every step of the way in their banking journey, resulting in a direct, intuitive experience that customers across the board can appreciate. In essence, even when the customer isn’t right, they feel like they are.

Looking to the future

The digital space is, by its very nature, constantly in a state of flux and evolution. Trying to stay ahead of the competition while adapting to new technology is a continuous process. With a host of new technology being steadily integrated into our daily lives, Craig is well aware that he and his team need to be looking to the future, while dealing in the present.

“There are two components to it really,” Craig says in parting. “First we allow new technology to drive the design of new products and experiences, and second we try to preempt emerging technology and build prototypes for this. We try to strike a balance between the two. We’re constantly buying, testing and prototyping new technologies, and we’re beginning to experiment with proximity, such as how the Absa app might give you access to different functions when you’re in a branch as opposed to when you’re not. We’re building experiences to intercept the customer on their personal journeys and lead them back to us.

“Ultimately we’ve set ourselves the goal of being the best digital bank in South Africa by 2020. Then we are going to strive to build the best digital bank in the world.”

Disclaimer: The advice contained on this blog is for general purposes only and does not take into account individual circumstances, objectives or financial needs. Accordingly, readers are advised to seek appropriate advice from licensed professionals prior to making any investment, or taking up a financial product or service.