How Northwestern Mutual is growing design collaboratively

4 min read
Eli Woolery,
Stephanie Gonzalez
  •  Aug 23, 2018
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With a reputation built on 160 years of serving customers, Northwestern Mutual‘s integrity and accountability have remained constant. The needs of customers, on the other hand, have evolved dramatically in the digital age.

Northwestern Mutual acquired LearnVest in 2015 and with it, got more than just a talented technical team; it acquired leaders who believed in the power of design. Company-wide collaboration, including cross-functional workshops and employee empathy training, helped the company’s design team grow to the tune of 10x in just two years. Now, as they embrace design, Northwestern Mutual is connecting with their customers, helping them create products for how they work and live today.

“The future is a process we’ll establish together.”

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Deep collaboration

The design team at Northwestern Mutual believes strongly in the power of interdisciplinary collaboration. Cross-functional workshops include both product and design and cover topics ranging from information architecture, to sketching, to user flows.

“Workshops are good for getting people’s buy-in. And if they’re part of the process you’re also making use of that great knowledge that’s stuck in their heads, which designers may not know,” said Northwestern Mutual VP Head of Design Abigail Gray.

In one recent workshop, designers, tech leads, and even a certified financial planner explored how to make financial data visualizations less intimidating for customers. After ideating on a range of visualizations across 12 financial concepts, workshop participants voted on which ones to test further. Then those visuals were subject to a round of quantitative and qualitative research to test comprehension, as well as more subjective perceptions.

In another cross-functional exercise that helps inspire creating with empathy, many employees, including designers and writers, take a base-level class in financial planning that helps them think about the impact of the advice they’re giving in the products they are creating.

How to design like Northwestern Mutual

It can be challenging to refocus a 160-year-old company into a design-forward organization. Here are some of the ways Northwestern Mutual accomplished it:

  • Start small. “If you start with something of no value, there’s no risk to anybody. If you start with something of high value, people are going to be more resistant to change because you haven’t proven that you can do amazing things yet.” –VP Head of Design Abigail Gray
  • Become domain experts. “We’ve gotten to the scale where now we have UX leads and UX directors, very senior, very talented designers on our teams that do a lot of directing the design.” –Group Experience Director Lesley Fleishman
  • Think inclusively. “One of the unique aspects of joining a team like this is that you get to participate in defining our design culture and our design process. We’re still working on it and codifying it and changing it…” –Group Experience Director Lesley Fleishman

The Design Genome Project, which explores the DNA of the world’s best design teams, gives you concrete examples of what drives the success of the companies you admire and helps you build a body of evidence for investing in design. Check it out!

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard