Inside USAA’s approach to digital design

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Earlier this month, multiline financial services provider USAA cut the ribbon on a new office in Austin, Texas, that will serve as a design studio. There, the company will have 120 staff members focused on user experience for its many digital projects. Shortly after the opening, USAA’s chief design officer, Meriah Garrett, answered some questions about how she is leading the carrier’s strategy around digital experience.

Digital Insurance: You came to USAA about a year ago after several years on the agency side. What attracted you to financial services?

Meriah Garrett: We have such an opportunity to have real impact on our members’ lives and it was that impact that attracted me. It’s such a relatable problem space; we all know financial stress in one form or another, but it’s the clarity of mission and the approach USAA takes that really makes it resonate for me. As a designer, I’ve been the person shouting about “the user” and their “needs” for decades. I’m still amazed and delighted by how this company will so easily put the member needs over just the bottom line.

DI: What does your role as the chief design officer comprise?

Garrett: My primary charge is to help build out and run our design practice. This means dedicated teams that partner with the business and development to re-imagine our experiences and continuously improve them over time. I do this by focusing on hiring excellent talent, shaping our design approach with the team and making sure we’re always talking to and learning from our members to build our understanding and empathy.

DI: Why open a new office devoted to design?

Garrett: We actually do design work in several of USAA’s offices, including here in Austin, in Plano and of course in our San Antonio home office. The Austin office is just a way for us to capture some of the great design talent that this city has to offer, and to help us scale our design force more quickly. We also use the location as a way for our San Antonio-based business partners to step away from their daily activities and help us design through collaborative workshops and reframing exercises.

DI: What do you think are some of the things insurers could do better in the digital realm?

Garrett: In the digital space, our members don’t compare us to other insurers. They compare us to every other digital interaction they have with [companies like] Facebook, Google, Amazon and Venmo. This means they expect to be fully empowered to serve themselves when they want to, to have transparency to the process and to have up to date status at all times. A lot of insurers have gotten pretty good at digital shopping and comparisons, but that’s just driving the industry toward further commoditization. I think the opportunity is to drive more meaningful engagement with the existing membership, to help improve their day-to-day lives and safety and of course, to be there whenever they need us.

DI: What are some of the technologies or trends that you’re following that provide an opportunity for user experience improvement?

Garrett: The influx of data from all kinds of new sources and sensors is one of the obvious opportunity areas that is not only changing the way we can interact with our members, but the way the industry looks at products themselves. I’m personally turning my attention to artificial intelligence and machine learning as a way to begin to process and synthesize this data at scale. I think this is also the next big frontier for design as a discipline and begins to stir the pot between traditional information architecture, digital design and content management. After all, design is about so much more than screen layout, and understanding the explosion of potential inputs and responses greatly affects the experiences we help define and create.

[Don't mIss Meriah Garrett's keynote, Breaking Barriers: Design-Enabled Digital Interaction, at the 2017 Dig|In conference this May in Austin, Texas.]

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Customer experience Digital distribution Meriah Garrett USAA