Two years ago, financial services giant USAA decided to rethink every digital tool it uses to interact with customers.
The company's first instinct was to open a design studio in San Francisco.
But then the San Antonio-based company realized there was a great option much closer to home.
“There was this realization that there is such a hotbed of design talent in Austin,” said Meriah Garrett, chief design officer at USAA. “It's the early firms, the Dells and other big companies, and the startup communities. They have continually invested in Austin to built the right kind of talent in this town and brings the creative types in."
So USAA made an Austin investment of its own, creating a sleek 20,000-square-foot downtown studio at 5th and Colorado streets. The office, which from the 14th floor of the high rise has a sweeping view of the city, opened three months ago.
So far it employs about 45 people, but when fully staffed will house more than 120 staffers.
The company is currently hiring interactive designers, graphic visual artists, researchers and IT professionals. It's recruiting a wide range of skills, from junior talent just out of the University of Texas to senior design directors.
As more of USAA's 12 million members interact with the company online, rather than through a representative by phone, the goal is to make that experience just as simple and satisfying. Membership to USAA is limited to military members and their families, so its members range from young recruits just starting out to senior U.S. military veterans.
"Our business has always been about member service, and it's increasingly clear that digital tools will be an important way members interact and do business with us," Garrett said.
The Austin team, working with counterparts in San Antonio and Plano, will tackle everything from how members plan their finances, get a mortgage or decide on the best insurance coverage. "It should be as easy as shopping online or streaming a video," Garrett said.
To tackle that, six-person teams are created to address each specific problem.
"It could be how we might re-imagine bill pay, or how to create a mobile experience that is truly personalized and tailed for the individual user. We just started a project to re-imagine claims," Garrett said.
To get feedback, the design team invites USAA members into its offices, and also visits them at home to talk about their lives and finances.
"It's not about members telling us, 'I wish this button was here.' Financial security is actually an emotional topic. We hear 'I don't feel like I have enough education to decide when I should go from savings in a cash account to investing,' or 'I don't know how I'm doing financially other than a credit report.' "
Financial education, Garrett said, is about more than posting articles and content on the USAA website. And that's where the design team comes in.
"Frankly, we're younger in this area, and we're growing into it. When you look at the health care space, one of the things that drives behavioral trends is continual micro-nudges over time. We are looking to adjacent industries to see how we might give those same nudges in a way that feels authentic and actually helps people over time."
Garrett was recruited to USAA two years ago to launch and build out the Austin studio. She was previously at design firm frog, where she worked with customers including Disney, Google, Capital One, 7-Eleven and Whole Foods.
She can gauge the growth at USAA studio by the speed at which white boards, which are virtually everywhere, are being filled with new ideas.
"We started in one corner and are moving across the building," she said. "It's great fun to see the space start to come alive with designers and the sticky notes and the mess of creativity."
News on Open Source is free and unlimited. Access to the rest of 512tech.com comes with an American-Statesman digital subscription, which also includes myStatesman.com and the ePaper edition. Subscribe at statesman.com/subscribe.