Project Management Institute

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from left, Pamela Walshe, Nyja Stringer, Melanie Arens, Jeff Street, Lara Tigmo in San Francisco, California, USA
A financial institution uses old-fashioned house calls to fuel a website redesign.

Retirement accounts might be big business for U.S. financial institutions, but they're often not all that well understood by the people actually using them.

Wells Fargo saw a lucrative opportunity to change that with a revamp of its website. But the San Francisco, California, USA-based financial giant knew it had to act fast to beat the start of the season—people are most likely to make changes to their individual retirement accounts (IRA) from February through the U.S. tax filing deadline on 15 April.

That meant the site needed to be off the ground by February 2009, leaving the design team with just six months.

“It was pretty rapid fire from the time we kicked things off,” says Jeff Street, senior vice president of retail retirement.

To get the job done, the company's internet services group had to field requests and take direction from parties across the organization—all with their own (and often competing) interests and perspectives. Relationship managers, product managers, customer experience advocates and analytics experts had a say. So did legal and compliance watchdogs, and enterprise marketing pros charged with maintaining a consistent brand across the company's retail branches, print materials, broadcast media and online presence.


It was pretty rapid fire from the time we kicked things off.

—Jeff Street, Wells Fargo, San Francisco, California, USA


Before development even began, the team employed a user-centered design process to create new content, test that content and then get approvals from all those groups of stakeholders.

“Having a great project manager helped us navigate development and, with our content-development team, bring all of our ideas around the site strategy into actual content on the page,” Mr. Street says.

The team's efforts to gain a clear understanding of user needs and expectations also proved to be an integral part of the project. To get into customers’ heads, the retirement group went far beyond the two-way-mirror focus groups of the past and even the online panels popular today.

Using their backgrounds in cognitive psychology, anthropology, computer-mediated communications and other social sciences, Wells Fargo researchers sat down with about 18 families in their homes to probe their understanding of and attitudes toward retirement. The company chose people who met certain asset thresholds as well as some on the margins for comparison's sake.

“Nothing gets you closer to looking through the customers’ eyes than being with them and letting them tell you exactly what their core motivations and goals are,” says Robin Beers, vice president of customer insights for the internet services group.

The in-person interactions gave the team plenty of fodder—and what they learned was that people are pretty confused.


A 2008 survey of 1,203 adults revealed widespread confusion about IRA contribution limits, tax implications and other critical factors. Even among those respondents who said IRAs were worthwhile, 44 percent said they didn't know how the accounts work. More tellingly, approximately 70 percent of respondents said that IRAs are “worth the bother,” even though only 39 percent have one. The study was conducted by AARP Financial Inc., a subsidiary of the mega advocacy group The American Association of Retired People.

On a similar note, The Vanguard Group's How America Saves 2009 report showed that a whopping 84 percent of its more than 3 million retirement-plan participants made no trades in their accounts last year, despite extraordinary market volatility.

In other words, inertia dominates retirement savings behavior.

Looking to turn the ignorant into the empowered (and help Wells Fargo engage its target), the team knew it had to educate its online audience and move it to action.

And after the in-home sessions, the team's researchers thought they had a solid idea on how to do that. The team discovered that consumers are more adaptable to changing financial circumstances than they had anticipated.

Prior to conducting the interviews, the researchers asked participants to create collages to represent their ideal retirement and a realistic one. The core values held in both collages but differed by degree. For example, if travel was a part of the retirement vision, a fabulous trip to Europe appeared on the ideal collage while a trip to U.S. national parks or Mexico appeared on the realistic version.

“One of the interesting things about that finding—one that a lot of financial firms miss when they market to people— is that most people are very flexible and resilient,” Ms. Beers says. “They can make different choices for themselves based on whatever their circumstances are. That's empowering and meant we could foster security based on a feeling of independence, versus scaring people about how bad off they'll be if they don't save X amount of dollars now.”


Nothing gets you closer to looking through the customers' eyes than being with them and letting them tell you exactly what their core motivations and goals are.

—Robin Beers, Wells Fargo


Wells Fargo researchers sat down with about 18 families in their homes to probe their un derstanding of and attitudes toward retirement.


The team also discovered that different outlooks and life stages prompt different approaches to finances.

“Probably the biggest thinking tool that we were able to offer and the aspect that is reflected in the site is that people operate in different modes with regard to thinking about money, approaching their finances and their tolerance of risk,” Ms. Beers says.

And that understanding shaped the rest of the project.

The ethnography broke customers into three groups:

1. Reactors have knee-jerk responses to their finances. They never learned to handle their money well or feel victimized by their circumstances.

2. Poolers are one level up, doing the right things in terms of day-today management of their money, but they're not savvy investors and feel nervous about making their money work hard for them.

3. Maximizers really understand finance and manage their funds with sophistication—these are the people at the top.

In the final website design, those groups translated to three broad stages: those saving for retirement, nearing retirement and enjoying retirement.

Graphically represented on the group's home page, the life stage a user chooses starts him or her on a path through the site's content. People can now make stops at retirement planning checklists, risk tolerance assessment tools, and IRA and 401(k) rollover applications that allow employees to transfer retirement funds when they change jobs.

“We didn't have those buckets previously,” says Nyja Stringer, vice president of public site product management. “They let folks self-identify with a particular life phase that would pull them into content that was specifically relevant for them.”


What helped us succeed was constant communication—weekly status meetings and weekly status reports that kept stakeholders who weren't involved daily in the loop.

—Lara Tigmo, Wells Fargo



With the IRA season fast approaching, the team shifted its focus from research to ROI, concentrating on its ability to generate higher lead volumes, more application starts and greater engagement with product pages.

Lara Tigmo, project manager, pushed the team from study to execution by tracking requirements and requests for changes, and making sure implementation resources were available.

“Looking back on the project, what helped us succeed was constant communication—weekly status meetings and weekly status reports that kept stakeholders who weren't involved daily in the loop,” she says. “We had a line of business that was very engaged. That allowed us to come to decisions quickly and moved the project along.”

So did an early decision to divide the project's development into batches. After the research, task analysis and site strategy aspects of the project were complete, usability testing, content creation, page coding and quality assurance proceeded in stages.

The first batch of deliverables focused on changes to lower-level pages. The more complex and visually driven home page overhaul came second because it required greater stakeholder involvement and more development time. A third batch of items was given low priority—if time ran out, those issues could be addressed after the launch without undermining the project's larger aims.

Other content lost its place in the retirement planning section altogether because site metrics and task analysis revealed it wasn't sought by most users of the consumer site. Business-related information, for example, found a new home under the Retirement & Investments section of the Small Business tab.

As the development team tackled the lower-level pages, retirement home page mockup iterations worked their way through various approvals. When batch one was coded, the developers could segue into batch two development without delay.

“Fully utilizing our development resources helped us launch on time,” Ms. Tigmo says. “Otherwise it would have been tight.”

Batch one development began in November and included updates to the landing pages for the IRA Center and 401(k) Center to bring information on on how to select the right investment product to the surface. New content was added to offer retirement planning information that wasn't previously available on the site. Because of their specialized nature, these content-rich pages were less controversial internally than the home page design and required fewer approvals.

By contrast, the retirement planning section home page redesign, which was part of batch two, included several graphics and signoffs. It didn't go into development until December.

“We had some challenges coming up with the right pictures and look and feel because it's so subjective,” Ms. Tigmo says. “Luckily our line of business had a definite theme in their marketing collateral and the developers were flexible.”

Referring back to the ethnography and other user research ensured customer needs trumped business group lobbying and personal design taste.

“Key challenges come up when you start to introduce visual elements because people are drawn to them or not,” says Melanie Arens, an e-business manager.

To avoid people reacting to their own likes and dislikes, the team justified design decisions by focusing on the process.

“We have to keep it connected to research and show that these approaches are supportive of user tasks,” Ms. Arens says. “Always keeping that thread out there is important.”

The site went live on 21 February, but stakeholders had another 30 days during which they could have small fixes made to address items that were within the project scope but had slipped through the cracks. The group's understanding that it could still make some tweaks even after the site's launch sped up approval processes.

“It made everybody happy,” Ms. Tigmo says. “We stayed on target, launched on schedule and the line of business knew we would address all of their needs.”

The redesign investment is paying off. Ms. Stringer reports lead volumes and application starts have both grown since last year's figures were released.

And with IRA season rolling around, confused consumers could once again be pushing those numbers up. PM

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