Design Chats

Societe Generale’s Morgane Peng on collaboration, constraints, and chaos

4 min read
Scott Kirkwood
  •  Sep 6, 2018
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Most of us interact with banks via ATMs or mobile apps, which gives us some insight into rather simple user experiences.

But Morgane Peng and her colleagues with French bank Societe Generale are focused on even more complicated processes, from B2B solutions to digital tools used on trading floors all over the globe—which often means adhering to strict banking regulations that make the iTunes user agreement look like The Cat in the Hat.

We asked Morgane, Director of User Experience and Design at Societe Generale Global Banking and Investor Solutions, to tell us more about the company’s design processes, its highly collaborative culture, and the challenges posed by those pesky financial regulations.

How is your design team set up?

We’re part of the Digital Office, which is centralized within the wholesale activities of Societe Generale. Our team is in London and Paris, and historically sits on the trading floors. Our mission is to provide financial services for corporations and financial institutions, from startups to central banks.

We also serve the company’s internal users, since external clients and internal users often have homogeneous behaviours and share similar needs in the B2B space.

Last team meetup in Feb 2018

The Digital Office reports directly to the Group Deputy CEO. Our position reflects the support of senior leadership and that digital is part of the core business strategy. On a day-to-day basis, this allows us to break free from potential siloes and work on any project across the organization.

The team is made of 17 designers, and we’re continuing to expand. We avoid mindless growth and rely on Business and IT partners for a lot of the prep work, like coming up with a lean canvas or gathering user research (user flow drafts, etc.) so we can kick-start projects efficiently. That’s how we’ve managed to deliver over 100 services to our B2B platform over the last couple of years.

“Being collaborative is key.”

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How did you get to where you are now?

I studied financial business and started on the trading floor. When I was marketing financial products for Societe Generale, I needed to explain complex products to clients, and I realized there were a lot of opportunities for improvement in our digital solutions. I ended up coordinating the design audit of the bank’s interfaces, and eventually led the process for building the internal team. It was organic—everyone we hired brought something unique, from methodology to practice.

“Les Dunes” office in Paris

In fact, I was an “undercover designer” at the bank from the beginning—I was designing, developing, and selling Flash-based video games when I was a teenager, and I’m still working on some projects today, including Koruldia, a role-playing video game that will launch its Kickstarter campaign soon.

What I realized while developing games is that people don’t behave the way you think they do. For example, I created a lot of dress-up games (fashion dolls), and with each release I hosted an international contest to reward the most creative outfits. I was astonished by what people could come up with, since I thought I knew all the functionalities and limitations of the game, as the designer.

I was so wrong! That’s why we always need to test our designs, whether in gaming or UX for the financial industry.

What’s the design culture like at Societe Generale?

Organic. We don’t do a lot of internal or global staff-awareness campaigns. When we work with people on a specific challenge, the UX team creates the methodology or concept organically.

For example, to explain the concept of MVP when it’s needed, I ask the business partners to list the features they think they want, in order of priority, so that we know what we can/cannot sacrifice.

We also mentor or rely on external companies to train our colleagues on the design process, product owner, Scrum process, etc. We make sure it’s clear who owns what before the project starts.

“We always use our tools and methodologies to determine what’s relevant to the user, which is what matters most.”

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We first started by working with people who believed in this approach, including one of our quantitative traders in New York who partnered with our team to create a B2B tool that simplifies the experimental use of new trading strategies, and the global head of commercial advisory for Private Banking in Paris, who is the product owner on several B2E applications.

Once these projects were out, their success helped generate interest across the organization. We established the value of design and demonstrated how design helps, without battling to justify why we are on the project—a challenge that I hear from a lot of other designers.

Sometimes there’s a perfect match between what our internal clients want on the screen and something we’ve done on other projects. We can share experience, design, and code—that’s the power of collective intelligence and that’s our playground.

When you’re an agency, you have to start educating yourself with discovery on day one. Here, we can move much faster.

A breakout area in Paris

How has the design process evolved since you’ve been there?

When I first started at Societe Generale, I saw a lot of the classic inefficiencies that can lead projects to go wrong: someone up the management chain would forget to give their approval or fail to do their part; designers were mostly seen as a commodity, working on modules or adding new components without challenging the use cases, which makes things very complicated and confusing; and product owners could come back and say, “That’s not what I requested—try again.”

It became clear that when people weren’t invested in the outcome, they didn’t feel like they were part of the team. So, we decided we wouldn’t start a new design project until everyone agreed on the objectives. We also wanted to make sure there were no irrefutable assumptions going into the project—we always use our tools and methodologies to determine what’s relevant to the user, which is what matters most.

“When people aren’t invested in the outcome, they don’t feel part of the team.”

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What’s unique about the way Societe Generale approaches projects?

We follow Jeff Bezos’s two-pizza rule in our 150-year-old institution: If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, the team is too large. The smaller the team, the better.

A team of four to five people is typically assembled with staff from different departments, with different areas of expertise. It’s very democratic—no member of the team has authority over the others on their mandate.

We might have a trader acting as the product owner, a business analyst as an IT correspondent, and a UX designer as a design correspondent. Each member of the team has a well-defined role.

“Basalte” office in Paris. Photo credit: Yann Stofer.

How does your team use InVision?

We use InVision to prototype in low- and high-fidelity and to empower the whole team to get user feedback.

One of our product owners always has InVision on her tablet so that when she meets clients, she can just pull it out of her bag to get quick insights on what we’re currently working on. This complements our more “official” user tests and gets everybody involved.

Another way we use InVision is to share prototypes with people from completely different business areas who are working on the same use cases without being aware of it—and they can then carry on the conversation. This way, we act as super-connectors and build the overall design practice and knowledge across the organization.

“One of our product owners always has InVision on her tablet so that when she meets clients, she can just pull it out of her bag to get quick insights on what we’re currently working on.”

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You’ve mentioned using Excel as a tool before jumping into UI, because everyone in the financial industry is so familiar with it. Can you say more about that?

I sincerely think that Excel is overlooked as a design tool. Everyone is shocked at this idea, especially our new designers, but they end up loving it once they understand its full potential.

Our team strives to design around data, and not force data into designs (which is why we forbid lorem ipsum!). Excel allows us to prepare and share the content, identify the interface, and work on the information hierarchy before opening any design tool. You can even do low-fidelity prototyping with Excel, using only the keyboard. I’m considering recording a video to show this, then making it available in our blog.

It goes without saying that once we finish iterating on it, we then move to a high-fidelity version or into development using our design system based on proper web technologies (React / Angular / Preact) and relevant APIs.

“We use InVision to prototype in low- and high-fidelity and to empower the whole team to get user feedback.”

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What’s it like designing for a highly regulated industry?

Most recent regulations focus on the customer, especially with personal data protection and market transparency regulations. We’re already highly regulated as a bank, and I believe that the awareness of protecting customer data is one of the areas where finance is ahead.

Our designers need to take compliance trainings to know, for example, what MIFID II implies for the customer. It’s a process we’ve worked with from the beginning.

Compliance training is for everyone

Still, we try to bring in the delight of what you can experience as a personal consumer, using the thinking of a company like Airbnb, but tailored to B2B experience.

We want people to be more efficient, which often means they spend less time in our applications. We know our customers have a business need (hedge their assets against market risks, for example) and our mission is to fulfill this need, not to increase the traditional web metrics, like time spent on the platform or number of connections.

“The awareness of protecting customer data is an area of design where finance is ahead.”

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What do you look for when you’re hiring designers?

Because so much of our work is based on mutual trust, it’s key to have team players. There’s no such thing as “This is my design”—that’s just not how it works here. People aren’t promoted for their individual contributions alone. Being collaborative is key and is one of our nine principles to avoid design chaos.

We also value diversity in background specialty. People on our team come from the worlds of design, ecommerce, business, IT, and communication. We often hire for specialties, so that we’ve got the right team for more complicated projects. We’ve even leveraged Societe Generale’s global footprint: having a presence in London has allowed us to hire designers from all over the world. We primarily work in English, yet we have people coming from France, the UK, as well as China, Poland, South Korea and Spain.

I’m also proud that the team has a good gender diversity ratio (41% female, 59% male) that we’ve managed to keep balanced while scaling up. No matter the project, we have someone who will fit in and find it interesting to be on it.

And, of course, it’s a no-brainer to say that when you’re from different backgrounds, it ensures you don’t create a product just for you but for the diversity of your clients.

Everyone brought something unique from methodology to practice

What most excites you about working in design at Societe Generale?

As a designer, what I really care about is having an impact on users and working on complex challenges—and contributing to Societe Generale’s transformation strategy. We’re helping to build this strategy, and we’re working with people who want to work with designers, and who understand our impact.

Societe Generale may not be the perfect company, but I don’t know many companies where designers can refuse projects if they aren’t ready (undefined uses cases, unclear ROI, etc.). This is the case here, which means we stay on projects with the greatest impact on the company’s business.

Office terrace in Paris

What’s your best advice for young designers?

Just do something—anything. People who want to make the move to design often tell me that they’re afraid to get started, but it doesn’t take much time or money to start a few personal projects on the side. Just download some free software, find something you’d like to improve, share it with others, and get feedback.

“It’s natural to defend your viewpoint, but it’s even better to listen and understand other people’s perspective.”

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And don’t take feedback too seriously. The job is important and feedback is important, but don’t take it personally (as hard as that is!). Try to empathize with the person who’s giving you feedback. Think about what they’re saying and why they’re saying it.

It’s natural to defend your viewpoint, but it’s even better to listen and understand other people’s perspective.

Learn more about Societe Generale’s design approach here and on their blog.

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