The secret behind BBVA’s award-winning digital transformation

4 min read
Abby Sinnott
  •  Mar 4, 2020
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After more than 160 years as a Spanish banking giant, BBVA faced a challenge: creating a unified brand across all of their digital and physical properties in 11 countries, including thousands of branches and corporate buildings.

Though global chief marketing officer Rob Brown described the task—one of the biggest projects in the bank’s history and involving more than 4,000 employees—as “impossible,” they managed to pull it off almost seamlessly. In fact, the new global brand—just one year in the making—was deployed in June 2019 over 24 hours.

The secret to BBVA’s success? Encouraging their employees across functions, departments, and job titles to think like designers.

“All of our products and services are built in agile using design methodologies, so why wouldn’t we treat a brand project like a product or service?” Brown says. “It allowed 4,000 people around the world who normally can’t connect given the challenges of multiple countries to collaborate through an agile working environment.”

The secret to BBVA’s success? Encouraging their employees across functions, departments, and job titles to think like designers.

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The golden triangle

Margarita Barrera, head of global design, leads a design workshop

When Margarita Barrera joined BBVA to lead the Spanish design team, she was tasked with expanding the team and program to support the bank’s ambitious digital transformation. In less than two years, she was promoted to lead the global design team, which grew from a few to more than 150 designers. Currently, BBVA has a total of 400 designers (including in-house and contractors) in nine countries.

Barrera admits that the beginning was far from easy. “From the minute zero, I was not only recruiting talent, but also addressing the challenges of many design leaders around the globe working in an agile environment,” she says.

“It was really important to introduce the role of the designer, give them empowerment, and at the same time, find them a seat at the table with key stakeholders, establish budget, and find the best way of communicating our work and value to senior management.”

Barrera helped to establish what she calls the “golden triangle of working between business, technology, and design,” which she says has been instrumental in the company’s design maturity and digital transformation journey, as well as her team’s incredible success.

For three years in a row, independent research firm Forrester awarded BBVA first place for best banking app in the world.

“I think a key to our success has been this completely new way of collaborating across disciplines,” says Barrera. “We sit and work together in the same place, using agile methodologies and introducing customer insights at every stage.”

Barrera adds that by creating interdisciplinary teams, the right people and right perspectives are engaged from the very beginning of each project.

BBVA’s “golden triangle” of design, business, and technology

The triangle brings together leaders from the disciplines:

  • Design (contributes the user’s point of view)
  • Business (helps construct a viable solution)
  • Technology (creates a feasible and implementable solution)

For three years in a row, independent research firm Forrester awarded BBVA first place for best banking app in the world.

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BBVA’s trained design ambassadors participate in a design sprint

Design ambassadors

This new way of collaborative working led the bank to create a design at scale global program for employees. It aims to integrate design methodologies and improve design practices across the organization to support the bank’s corporate strategy.

The program also aims to spread design knowledge to all of BBVA’s 126,000 employees across disciplines and countries, creating what they call “design ambassadors,” who are empowered to apply design thinking principles, processes, and tools (such as prototyping) to solve any problem in any area of the bank.

Design ambassadors are taught how to follow an agile design process with four main phases: understand, ideate, prototype, and evaluate.

“Today we have around 5,000 BBVA design ambassadors supporting us around the world,” Barrera says. “Employees who work across every department such as legal, risk, and human resources help to spread our design vision, identity, principles, and culture, which is super powerful and one of our biggest achievements as a mature organization.”

[Related: How to introduce design thinking into your organization]

Anxo López, design strategy manager at BBVA, leads a design strategy workshop

The bank also established a community of practice, led by Anxo López, design strategy manager at BBVA. This robust group connects their designers around the world by sharing design best practices, principles, and methodologies. It also brings this knowledge to the broader non-design BBVA community through events.

“It’s important to talk about the relevance of designers beyond the screen because we think that utilization is part of the process, but it’s not just that,” López says. “It’s about people: how we manage relationships and how we maintain a human touch in our designs.”

“Employees who work across every department such as legal, risk, and human resources help to spread our design vision, identity, principles, and culture, which is super powerful and one of our biggest achievements as a mature organization.”

Margarita Barrera, design team lead at BBVA
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Customer empathy

Design ambassadors are also taught the importance of customer empathy—putting the user at the center of every company project with the goal of creating something that makes their lives easier, Barrera says.

She adds that this customer-centric approach strongly aligns with the company’s overall mission: To bring the age of opportunity to everyone. But what does that mean exactly for customers?

“Really it’s about our products and services providing our customers better life opportunities—from buying your first home to having your first baby, to getting your first car loan, to building your startup and needing seed funding for corporate investing,” Brown says.

“But it’s also about the experiences we’re building in digital that are bringing people the opportunity to save time and reduce stress spent banking. The truth is that people don’t want to spend their day banking. They really want to spend their time doing the things they love to do: listening to music, watching movies, playing with their kids.”

One prime example is BBVA’s award-winning app, which Forrester recognized for its “superb balance between useful functionality and excellent user experience.”

“Everything you can do in person at a branch, you can do online or with your mobile,” Barrera says. “For our Spanish customers, the app covers 100% of our services.”

Even after the original version won first place in 2017 as the best mobile banking app in the world, Barrera’s team didn’t rest on their laurels. They improved the design to provide a superior user experience that differentiated their apps from others in the digital landscape. Using dozens of InVision prototypes and rigorous user testing, they re-launched a new version currently used by 5 million customers.

And customers have taken notice in a big way: Following the release of the re-designed app, BBVA credit card applications skyrocketed by 80 percent, current account openings by 20 percent, and sales of investment funds soared by 50 percent.

Other key metrics include a doubling of sales in pension plans, as well as increases in health, home, and car insurance.

BBVA’s banking app was awarded best banking app in the world three years in a row

Behavioral economics

As part of their digital transformation program, BBVA established a behavioral economics team—something of a rarity among other European banks. The team works cross-functionally, analyzing as many designs, products, and services as they can through a human-centered lens.

“We study how people make decisions and have a deep understanding of this human behavior, so we can share this knowledge with other teams,” says Álvaro Gaviño, behavioral economics global leader at BBVA. “The goal is to develop more trust with our customers and to help them make better decisions regarding their financial health through the way that our products and services are designed.”

For example, the behavioral economics team is helping shape the design of BBVA’s mobile banking app, making recommendations about the app’s savings feature.

Customers are asked to select the number of days and the amount they want to place in a savings time deposit.Instead of listing the term and amount chronologically (one to 365 days and one to 250 Euros, for instance), the Behavioral Economics team suggested ordering from the highest number first (365 to one days and interest to be earned from higher to lower), with the goal of leading more people to select a greater time term and amount for their savings. This recommendation was based on something called “psychological anchoring.”

“This is an example of helping people’s decision making to achieve the financial goals they set for themselves,” Gaviño says. “The outcome we are looking for is having more people choose a higher number in both value and term, which is better for their financial health.”

BBVA also aims to train all of its employees across departments and roles in behavioral economics. In fact, 20,000 employees have already undergone a behavioral economics course, which has proven to be one of Campus BBVA’s most popular programs.

The team recently added another member: B.E.L.A (Behavioral Economics Learning Algorithm), a self-learning artificial intelligence project fueled by behavioral economics, real campaign data, and machine learning. BELA helps BBVA personalize their marketing campaigns on a global scale with a goal of delivering the right messaging to the right customers at the right time.

Just as industrial designers use AI algorithms to automatically generate successful variations of a chair, BELA also provides insights that help generative design to produce and test hundreds of hypotheses for marketing campaigns.

“We believe behavioral economics is applicable to every piece of our business, from the service center to acquisitions to employee relations,” Brown says. “And so you will start to see BBVA using behavioral economics in every aspect of our lives, not just with customers and clients. Behavioral economics allows everyone, including our bankers and finance team, to step away from finance and start to look at things like psychology, sociology, and human interactions—all of these crucial aspects that are not traditionally associated with finance.”

In addition to behavioral economics, Brown says that as BBVA reaches a pivotal point in their maturity and digital transformation, the bank will continue to focus on implementing an agile way of working across the entire organization. He adds that this will allow for true cross-functional collaboration and the ability to build products on a global scale that deliver a superior and consistent experience to their customers around the world.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard