Bottoms Up! – Happy New YearRSS icon

Written by Mark Cotter on Friday 8 January 2016

A look at evolution versus design 

Firstly, Happy New Year all!

As we survey the damage to our finances and waistlines over the festive period and some of us take stock of our new gadgets and gizmos, it feels like a good time to look ahead to 2016 and the future of financial services. And in particular to look at the technology which is becoming ever more important in shaping our industry.

Some of us will have opened our Christmas stockings and been lucky enough to receive a variety of shiny new technology; laptops, tablets, smartphones, games consoles etc. But how many of these gadgets would have even been available the previous Christmas I wonder?

The sheer pace of change and the tendency of every new product to ‘cannibalise’ its predecessor making it obsolete (think iPhone and a new version every year!) means that in our consumer-led society we are always waiting and hungry for the next ‘new thing’.

But what is it we want? Do we even know? Henry Ford was famous for saying that if he had asked people what they wanted before the car they would have said ‘faster horses’. In a similar vein the late, great, Steve Jobs said that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Is that the answer then? We need very clever people and corporations sitting in a room and coming up with amazing innovations that we will instantly love and desire (and sometimes even actually ‘need’).

Well perhaps in some cases that is true, but there is a definite trend towards a more organic and natural process for design occurring, which is taking the process of innovation from the board room or design team right down to the customers themselves. Evolution is supplementing design and the process of innovating new products is in many areas changing from top down (à la Ford and Apple) to ‘bottom up’. The now ubiquitous reach of the internet, improved processing power on ordinary devices and the ever increasing connectedness of everyday items (the so called ‘internet of things’) is shifting the design paradigm.

To take a good example, technology company Belkin, in developing its ‘WeMo’ product used the insight of its customers in a clever and unique way. The WeMo is a simple system where you can connect items in your home (lights, clocks, cameras etc) and create a network whereby certain triggers turn things off and on. It allows access to a simple programming tool called (IFTTT or ‘if this then that’) which allows you to create a huge variety of actions for all your connected devices. You can configure your lights to come on by checking the time for sunset on the internet for example. Or configure an email or SMS to be sent if a sensor detects movement or the cat has used its litter tray….or not!

The interesting thing here is that rather than the traditional methods of prototypes and testing and focus groups and design for how these networks ‘should’ be configured, the WeMo Belkin gave its customers the basic tools to design and configure their own version of the product by giving them the programming tools. And then crucially, Belkin closely monitored the bulletin boards and forums they set up to see which ‘recipes’ customers are sharing the most, which ones are working and others that are not. In a very simple but effective way Belkin is putting design back in the hands of the end user and getting them to engineer the product for them – leading to future products based entirely on user design, testing and approval.

On a more general level the use of so called ‘Hackathons’ - where teams of people are invited to come together and in a short, intense period of time (typically a day or 2) to come up with a solution for a problem or a product, have become more and more popular. This might seem a bit niche or hipster ‘trendy’ but Hackathons have been responsible for the formation of some pretty major companies. Twitter being one of them.

This kind of shift of innovation from top-down design to bottom-up evolution, made me think of our financial products and services and the tools we use on adviser platforms in particular. Like most people in this industry I think it’s fair to say that I have had ‘mixed’ experience’s (as a personal and professional user as well as working for a provider) of the design and implementation of new bits of ‘kit’.

The traditional development process takes a very long time, products emerge with a series of flaws and ill-conceived features not tested in the real world and many require significant workarounds. To compound this problem, most IFAs who use the technology have little or no contact with each other, apart from the odd social or corporate event (usually involving a golf club) and hence no opportunity to swap ideas, discuss issues, solutions found, what they really need etc. This lack of collaboration and communication between the users of a platform has always seemed a bit strange to me and feels like a wasted opportunity.

Recently however, we have started to see signs of a new approach with some platforms engaging much earlier with IFAs, in a similar way to Belkin’s successful WeMo initiative.

Instead of being given a basket of standard reports and tools (80% which the adviser will never use), the platform provides the raw data and a simple programming tool to allow users to experiment and create their own reports, tools and even products. As with the Belkin example above, users are encouraged to communicate and share and post ideas.

This collaborative, open and naturally evolving process not only enables advisers to bespoke design their own set-up and service clients better, but also promises to make them more engaged and interactive as a partner; improving the platform service whilst reducing R&D costs. 

So to that I say, ‘bottoms up’ is perhaps the way to go!

Happy New Year to you all.

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