Design for life: how planning experience grows business

Head of experience design at Intesa Sanpaolo, Fabio Salierno tells Giulia Rhodes how the bank’s commitment to innovation and design is supporting its growth

Giulia Rhodes


Experience design is a hot topic in the world of business and finance. Last year American economist Richard Thaler won a Nobel Prize for his work on behavioural economics, one of the discipline’s academic pillars.

It is, says Fabio Salierno, head of experience design at Intesa Sanpaolo, a concept that banks – and increasingly their business clients – cannot afford to ignore.

“Experience is the way each of us interacts with other people, with things. It is the way we do things, buy products, make choices,” he explains. “Today – with digitalisation meaning we are more bombarded with resources, information and options than ever – experience becomes the key for clients in differentiating between offers and identifying value.” In short, effective experience design is an important means to beating the competition.

“Getting closer to the people for whom we are planning is the only way to make the products and services that will interest them”

Fabio Salierno, head of experience design, Intesa Sanpaolo

At a time when technology companies are moving into some areas of financial services, the need to offer more, as an adjunct of expertise, is even more pressing, says Salierno.

Intesa Sanpaolo’s proactive approach to experience design – with a dedicated department set up three years ago – is not only reaping rewards for the bank, says Salierno, but can also serve as a valuable example to other companies.

Lip-service is not enough, he warns. “In many cases, engagement with experience design – or its cousin, service design or UX – is mostly talk. It is easy to say, ‘we put the client at the centre’, but then to carry on doing things as before. What’s different is to actually structure a company to understand what clients want, need and expect and then to follow this right through to an end product or service that gives a meaningful experience.”

The first step, he suggests, is to get to grips with what experience design is. “Often people hear the word design and think of something which is beautiful aesthetically, but this is actually a methodology for identifying new services or systems and planning them.

“It is not enough to create a product that is perfect from a technological point of view, but which does not meet the specific need of the individual,” he says. “That product will remain unused.” At its heart, continues Salierno, experience design is about the relationship between person and product.

Intesa Sanpaolo branch, the living area.

The process begins with qualitative research. “We have an outline of a product – an insurance policy, a new credit card, the layout of a high-street branch, for instance – and we carefully study the needs, attitudes, behaviours and expectations of our clients with regard to that product.”

The results, admits Salierno, can be surprising. “Designers need open minds. As the work of Richard Thaler and other economists and scientists has shown us, people do not always make what we would once have considered logical or profitable choices. They like to make cognitive shortcuts.

“Sometimes research has shown us that the assumptions we started out with are not right. In some cases, this means projects have changed course.” The process of design, says Salierno, is a “circular” one, in which the needs and responses of the end user must remain key. “It is vital to keep that interaction and feedback going even through modelling and development. Users are often involved in the design and test phases as well.”

Experience design is not merely a way of keeping up with the competition or pinning down a deal, though. It is also a driver for growth. “It is a win-win. The customer gets what they want. They are guided towards better choices further down the line. These in turn help the company grow.” Long-term client relationships – an abiding aim for Intesa Sanpaolo – are thus a significant benefit of good experience design.

“It is not enough to create a product that is perfect from a technological point of view, but which does not meet the specific need of the individual” - Fabio Salierno

Among the projects his department is working on, new insurance services and packages particularly excite Salierno.

“We would offer several ways to access insurance opportunities, through a guided process which gives customers a better overview and allows them to consider individually tailored suggestions, and through value-added services creating links between areas of health and well-being.” It is what Thaler calls a nudge.

Thus far Salierno’s team has mainly worked with the bank’s retail arm and with many of its international subsidiaries – both on products and services and on internal processes – though he believes the experience-design approach also has great potential for corporate clients.

A new partnership with international experience-design consultancy Experientia will bring a wider design perspective and fresh insight. “It is valuable not only to have the views of banking insiders, but to bring in independent expertise from other fields,” says Salierno – and allow this careful attention to experience design to be extended more widely across the bank as it continues its international growth.

“Innovation requires new outlooks, international knowledge, company culture. It is about lowering the barriers,” he finishes. “Getting closer to the people for whom we are planning is the only way to make the products and services that will interest them.”

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