Design Chats

Inside Design: Capital One

4 min read
Clair Byrd
  •  Feb 22, 2016
Link copied to clipboard

Capital One isn’t just a bank—it’s an organization where, thanks to founder Rich Fairbank’s belief that design will differentiate the company in the space, there’s some seriously cutting-edge design happening. For that reason, we couldn’t be more proud to have Capital One as part of the InVision community.

We sat down with Ryan Page, Head of Design for Card Partnerships at Capital One, to find out more about their design culture, how they collaborate, and what it takes to be innovative in a heavily regulated industry.

What’s the design culture like at Capital One?

We have a human-centered design culture here. That involves thinking about how we can change and improve the way people interact with their money—and how we, as a business, can also benefit as our customers benefit.

We have fun together. We’re distributed across a number of locations, and when we get together in person, we’ll do anything from creative workshops to lip sync battles with full costumes and choreography.

The design community may not reflexively know Capital One as a place to practice and create great design, but I’ve been hugely impressed by the team and the culture here.

“It’s so important to deeply understand the type of customer you’re designing for.”

Twitter Logo

How do you make decisions as a team?

We’re really invested in direct feedback from our customers around the things we’re thinking about building—or ones we’ve already built but want to improve.

So we start with customer feedback and empathy research to understand the human need we’re designing for. We also consider the impacts to the business and the technology constraints we need to be thinking about so we know when we can deliver something and how.

Our designers are advocates for our customers, and we work on a daily basis with our business partners to see things through a human-centered lens. As we continue bringing something new to market and discovering its impact on the customer and business, we have to continually gut check our decisions and keep refining them for the best outcomes.

We don’t do this in a black box—it’s this balanced, collaborative, and co-creative process that makes decision-making powerful and much more fun and fulfilling.

“A collaborative process makes decision-making much more fun and fulfilling.”

Twitter Logo

What role do you think designers should play in developing business strategy?

Designing with a human perspective is key to developing a human strategy.Twitter Logo To develop a strategy in the absence of a strong human need or a perspective on how real people see the world, well, that’s a strategy that won’t be as powerful as it might be if it’s created in collaboration with design.

We’re not saying design should create strategy by itself—we think design should be a co-creation between design, engineering, and the business.Twitter Logo You can’t move forward without business value, but if the business value doesn’t prioritize human desirability, then we’d certainly feel like that strategy isn’t going to be as successful as it could long term.

“Design should be a co-creation between design, engineering, and the business.”

Twitter Logo

When we think about human needs, we have a great power to unlock, identify, and articulate needs that may not be obvious to people who are looking at things only through a business-focused lens. We’re excited when we get to share those perspectives and blend them all together in a strategy.

How is the design team at Capital One set up?

Our design team is comprised of dozens of small teams, and we’re spread across 11 different locations including San Francisco, Dallas, New York City, DC, and Chicago, which is where my team is.

What’s unique is that we’re centralized as an overall design organization, but we’re also organized into dedicated teams who focus on specific lines of business and experiences.

That dual focus is crucial, because it’s so important to stay connected to the design communityTwitter Logo but also deeply understand the particular line of business you’re in and the type of customer you’re designing for.

Plus, this setup helps design to be a unifying and organizing force across our different experiences. We hope to dramatically improve customers’ lives and acquire new customers—or expand our relationship with existing customers—by designing effortless experiences for them. And as we do that, we want those experiences to be elegant, unified, and speak a common language.

One way we work to find our common language as a design team is through What’s Up Thursday, a weekly design session our entire team video conferences into. We’ll do things like have teammates share some of their results and stories behind the things we’re working on, or we’ll have an inspirational guest speaker. That helps the design team feel connected and inspired on a weekly basis.

We look at work and critique it as a group. It’s not like 100 people piling on something—it’s a structured, moderated session where we may bring in guest speakers and talk about topics that inspire us.

What’s the structure of the design team like?

Each design lead sets up their team to meet the human and business needs for their particular business focus or design initiative. We have a variety of disciplines represented, depending on the team: design strategy, user research, UX design, interaction design, visual and interface design, content strategy, design management, and front-end developers. Yes, we’ve learned it’s important to have some of the FEDs within the design team.

All of us work together at different points along the project life cycle in order to add value. Different people come in and impact a project over the life cycle—we don’t just have everybody on board the whole time with the same intensity.

It’s an organic creative process with some guidelines—like doing research and integrating business metrics consistently—more than it’s a rigid process with defined roles and responsibilities.

This agile workflow is absolutely essential for creative and innovative work. So as we near completion of a prototype or design, we’ll already be working with our software development teams to bring them to market and continue iterating. It’s a matter of iteratively figuring out what works for the business, engineering, and our clients and customers.

By working this way, we’ve seen huge benefits in how quickly we can get products to market, and how quickly we can react to customer feedback.

How do you use InVision as part of your design process?

InVision’s been a huge help. Our team here in Chicago uses it as a communication tool with stakeholders outside of the design organization so we can share and bring to life what a particular design or experiment might feel like when it’s actually in the hands of our customers.

“We use InVision prototypes as a way to communicate within our organization.”

Twitter Logo

We build tons of prototypes using InVision. We’re beginning to explore some of the other features like Boards, but we use InVision prototypes as a way to communicate within our organization.Twitter Logo We also use InVision prototypes to actually put something in front of customers as a way to get feedback.

Something we’re thrilled about is that we’ve been pushing for InVision to be used here as a creative routing tool. Up until recently, we’ve used some antiquated software to collect feedback from the legal, compliance, and brand departments in regards to what we’re developing. But we conducted some analysis, examined the process, and found that InVision is the best way to bring the feedback-collecting process into the modern world.

InVision’s great for helping us get sign-off on designsTwitter Logo—and it acts as a system of record, too.

“InVision is the best way to bring the feedback-collecting process into the modern world.”

Twitter Logo

We’ve also been able to reach out to InVision’s product team, and they’ve been open to hearing about how we’re using it—they’ve even given us some hints about where the product’s headed. That’s given us a real sense of hope as we think about using this tool on a larger and larger basis and scaling it up through the organization.

Can you tell me about the mix of actual designers on the team and how they report or collaborate with one another?

Here in Chicago, we have a design strategist, content strategist, and an organization called User Labs. All 3 of those represent specialized functions within the design team.

We also have UX and UI designers and front-end developers. Essentially everyone is plugged into projects on an as-needed basis.

With my team, for example, we may identify an opportunity to improve the way someone applies for a new product with us. We tend to think about the real world physical space, because the kind of products we offer are often offered in retail environments or in car dealership environments, for instance.

That makes us consider the interaction between the customer, the sales associate, and the physical environment of what’s happening.

As an example, we’d start with design strategy to inform or do some generative research about understanding people’s mental states before we actually embark on a design project. From there, we’d bring in UX designers and visual designers before bringing in front-end developers to help us build prototypes or, in some cases, write production-level code we could launch sooner.

We also spend a lot of time culturally as a centralized or interconnected design team to make sure we understand what other folks in the design organization are working on, and where there are opportunities to be connected, to make the experiences similar, and to speak with one language. We have internal efforts that help shape, promote, and advocate for a unified vision of design in Capital One.

How do you keep the company’s vision alive through design?

We’re lucky to have a founder who prioritizes having a real impact in people’s lives, and our team rallies around our 3 core principles: simplicity, humanity, and ingenuity.

We’ve got great leaders who can help to inspire—and they’re not just folks on the design team. Capital One does a nice job of celebrating leaders from all over the organization. We share where we’re going as a design organization with lots of other parts of the enterprise.

How do you attack the problem of being in a highly regulated space?

For us to be innovative, we have to involve our legal and compliance partners early in the process.

If we think of our legal and compliance partners as people we have to get past or that we have to convince to do something that they don’t really want to do, that’s problematic.

So what’s worked for us has been creating a sense of partnership and collaboration with them early on in the process. As a project or opportunity areas start to be addressed, we’ve seen great value in bringing our legal compliance folks into the room with us. We’ll workshop particularly thorny issues where they bring tons of expertise.

If they can provide input into how we think about regulation and how we can actually be innovative in terms of what we’re offering customers, and at the same time be compliant and meet with what regulation asks of us, that’s really where we’ve seen some great things happen.

Do you have any best practices that you can share about designing products that are re-imagining really incumbent experiences?

The key thing to focus on is whether you’re actually setting yourself up to reimagine something. You need buy-in from not just the design team, but other people within the organization. It’s tough to get a transformative result if you don’t give yourself enough room in the opportunity space that you’re going after.

Always make sure you’ve broadly defined that problem areaTwitter Logo and that you’ve allowed for interesting, impactful possibilities to be considered.

We see our greatest successes when we involve the right people along the way and we’ve truly co-created an expansive vision of what a problem area might be.

“We see our greatest successes when we involve the right people along the way.”

Twitter Logo

With that in mind, if someone were trying to foster design culture in their organization, what are some things you’d recommend they do?

Our path is easier because we’re a founder-led company. Our founder, Rich Fairbank, has talked about the need for design as a way to differentiate as we move forward as a company. That’s huge.  He’s empowered Capital One’s overall Head of Design, Scott Zimmer, who’s championed a vision for design as a business growth imperative—not just a bolt-on internal services team.  

It’s tough for companies or organizations that don’t necessarily have someone at the top who is able to unite the agendas of business and design. The strongest, most innovative companies today—especially in Silicon Valley—confidently put design leaders at the table early on, both in the executive team and throughout the business.

“Design flourishes when you tell a compelling story around human and business impact.”

Twitter Logo

If you’re a designer who knows the business inside and out, and you find and empower other design champions in your organization, you’ll boldly create new experiences together. That’s what true innovation is all about.  

Our design team at Capital One knows it’s important to show how design is creating business impact.Twitter Logo Design flourishes when you have the ability to tell a compelling story around human and business impact.

“The most innovative companies today put design leaders at the table early on.”

Twitter Logo

“Design should be a co-creation between design, engineering, and the business.”

Twitter Logo

“A collaborative process makes decision-making much more fun and fulfilling.”

Twitter Logo

Photos by Stefan Klapko Photo.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard