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Capital One VP: “The Impact AI Is Having On Design Is Bananas”

AI is shaping the future of the economy, says Steph Hay, vice president of design at Capital One. What role will designers play?

Capital One VP: “The Impact AI Is Having On Design Is Bananas”
[Photo: courtesy Capital One]

Steph Hay is vice president of design at Capital One. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.

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[Photo: courtesy Capital One]

Doreen Lorenzo: So one day you were sitting in your college classroom and you said to yourself, “Someday I’m going to be VP of design at Capital One.” It happened that way, right?

Steph Hay: I said, “I’m going to be the first female president of Ohio State University.” I was studying journalism. Oh, the places life takes us! After college, I moved to the D.C. area and started working at a university in communications and PR. I cut my teeth on the web my second week when I published an article online. My dean asked me to edit a particular word in that article, so I did and hit “update,” and instantly the change was live on the web. The speed of digital really hooked me. That was different from all of the print work I had ever done prior to that. So from that point forward, I focused on journalism in digital environments, and that led to a whole career in design.

DL: There’s a leap from going from writing and content to design. How did you get there?

SH: I was working at agencies where content was the last thing to be plugged into an interface that was already designed. I thought it was a false construct that design would exist without the content, so I started my own personal movement to get the story straight first, and work in the lowest fidelity possible for as long as possible. That way we could design experiences for customers that felt more like conversations we could have in real life versus robotic interactions through digital channels.

I started talking about this “content-first” methodology as an approach to validate ideas before building businesses. I was in Nashville talking about this when my former boss here at Capital One said, “We want to design content first. Will you come teach us how you work?” And I said heck yes.

DL: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned to get to where you are today?

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SH: One is that people who want to see mock-ups are often very unimpressed when I show them plain text. They want to see the picture. They want a visual to see how it all comes together. And that’s natural for communicating a vision to someone. But what often gets lost in that approach in the early stages of trying to design something is that you get caught up in the fidelity itself rather than in the needs of the customer or the meat of the conversation. So I learned to ask specific questions aimed at finding the heart of an issue. For example, when redesigning the ATM experience, I might ask a customer, “What do you love about the ATM?” and they might say, “I love it gives me money!” Then I’d ask, “What do you hate about the ATM?” and they might say, “Well, I hate when it’s raining and I have to stand out there.” I ask them those emotional questions to get them talking about how they feel in those moments. That kind of conversation gets lost if we’re already looking at something that’s a potential solution. We never get to the heart of it. So I found that by engaging folks in emotional conversation early on, we end up getting to something everybody felt better about sooner. Then we could design higher fidelity around it.

DL: How widely is design being used in financial services?

SH: We’re everywhere. I love how design is embedding in companies. I never would have expected to be working for Capital One, because human-centered design methodology just didn’t seem like the kind of thing financial services cared about. I assumed banks valued numbers over emotion. But then I met Capital One and it shifted everything for me. Being able to manifest the humanity in our technology really compels me. And the most exciting opportunity to me is the way machine learning and design are coming together to unlock these really human experiences delivered by robots—in any industry, including financial services.

[Screenshot: Capital One]

DL: You’re working on Capital One’s chatbot, Eno—tell us about that.

SH: Eno is Capital One’s intelligent assistant; a gender-neutral, natural-language chatbot we launched last spring. Creating Eno was another opportunity for design. We found ourselves talking about emotions, pre-existing notions about money, and gender dynamics in a room full of engineers, product managers, marketers, and lawyers. It was messy and lovely—the kind of conversation designers must have when creating AI-driven experiences.

Eno is gender-neutral by design. Because money is so intensely personal, we didn’t want to express Eno as a male or female. That Eno is overtly “a bot you can bank on” leaves the customer’s mind open to create whatever association with Eno makes the most sense for them.

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DL: What have you learned so far? What has been the response?

SH: What’s defined as “natural language” is context-specific. When customers interact with Eno in SMS, they tend to use a lot of shorthand and emojis. In fact, one of the things we’ve learned is how many people express their feelings about the experience they’re having with Eno through hearts, happy faces, and thumbs-up. Customers have even proposed marriage to Eno! Seeing that emotion come through is like a success feedback loop in the natural language for that context.

DL: Design is now starting to come together with the technology behind AI. How do you see that impacting the industry you’re in?

SH: One is that designers are going to be working at the systems level. We’ve been primarily working at the interface and touchpoint levels so far, because that’s the flow we’re designing across channels. But now we’re also working at the system level, because the AI is going to be making decisions. The system effectively becomes the new interface. Roles like AI writer, language scientist, multi-modal or narrative designer, and data visualization designer now exist on my team and others at Capital One. The key component here is that we’re all transitioning from a largely static, reactive design environment to a dynamic, proactive one fueled by data and AI.

Another impact is that empathy becomes data. Designers are uniquely positioned to study the emotional contexts people are in when they’re trying to do something, and contribute that contextual data back to the system. If we were only paying attention to the black-and-white use case and not contributing color to those systems, our experiences would be very robotic. And that’s a future none of us wants.

DL: If you’re a freshman going to school today, you’d better know this. The pain points in the industry right now include design for artificial intelligence.

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SH: The impact AI is having on design is bananas. Journalists, information architects, language scientists, content designers, copywriters, narrative and video game designers, script writers–these are the kinds of specialties converging to realize the power of AI. We absolutely need systems thinkers as part of our design teams–from the macro customer journey down to the most atomic level of data–so we can shape the future of our economy.

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