Robin Beers of Wells Fargo Shares Insight on Design Thinking


Robin Beers, Ph.D., is a senior vice president with Digital Solutions for Business (DS4B) and leads Customer Insights and Experience Design for Wells Fargo. Dr. Beers is responsible for bringing diverse customer listening practices, design capabilities, and experience strategy expertise together to drive user experiences that increase business value. She holds a doctorate in organizational psychology and views customer-centered practices as catalysts for keeping corporations in step with the market.

In this interview, Dr. Beers discusses her experience first working on the consumer side of Wells Fargo and now on the business-to-business division. There she leads a team that develops user-centered digital solutions and design thinking processes. Her team facilitates design thinking workshops that help navigate the complexity of business and aligns business strategies with customers’ true needs and perceptions. She is a frequent presenter at customer experience, customer insight, and service–design conferences.  

Q. How does design thinking approach problem solving differently?

A. Throughout the last couple of decades, there’s been an evolution when it comes to examining how designers solve problems, which is different than what’s typically learned in traditional business schools. The key concept is around ‘diverging before you converge,’ that is, creating lots and lots of possibilities and not just homing in on one solution. It’s also about understanding the problem from the human perspective, and then collaborating with all the stakeholders in that problem state. It’s a very different mindset than, say, being a subject matter expert, believing you must know the answer upfront, and implementing it. Design thinking is all about how we learn our way into the answer when nobody can claim to have the one best way.

Q. What makes design thinking so intuitive?

A. I’m always really struck when we do design thinking workshops or teach design thinking to people who may not have been exposed to it, how very natural a way of working it is. It taps into people’s humanity. What we like to do is think with people, talk with people, and problem solve together. And maybe, conversely, how it’s very unnatural to sit at your desk and try to come to solutions by ourselves. The evolution is about moving away from that one source of expertise to a more collaborative mindset. We’re living in a really complex world and most of our organizations reflect that complexity. The only way to truly navigate that complexity is through learning together. In addition to design thinking approaches, it’s about how to create learning organizations where people can continually evolve in what they know and what they can do together.

Q. Where do you think design thinking is not being utilized, but should be?

A. It’s being utilized in a lot of different sectors and I wouldn’t want to say it’s not being utilized here or there because people would probably say, ‘Yes, it is.’ What I can say is where I think it could have a bigger impact. I think government agencies could definitely benefit. In fact, I saw an amazing presentation at a conference last year using design thinking to redesign an application experience for veterans trying to access health care. The application profoundly improved because there was a veteran-led approach to making it better. I think anytime there’s a lot of complexity with the issues at hand, and a lot of perspectives and opinions, you should be able to have all those voices heard. You’re going to come out with better solutions. So, I think government organizations that want to affect people’s lives in positive ways are going to be very interested in applying design thinking.

Q. Do you think there’s something inherent about design thinking in which diversity and inclusion is a part of the ingrained framework of the process?

A. I definitely do. In design thinking you are recognizing a couple of things. One, the problems exist in a context and the context is a system. You’re automatically primed to look at all those factors in the system which invites diverse opinions. Two, you’re trying to collect as many ideas as possible and go for diversity of ideas, which comes from multiple sources. Diversity is going to make the process richer and produce higher quality ideas and solutions.

Q. How has Wells Fargo implemented design thinking and was there a project that you really feel embodied the mission of this thinking?

A. Before we were calling it design thinking, we were calling it user-centered design. When I joined Wells Fargo in 2004, the first thing that I did was take business people, designers, and researchers out on the road for three weeks to explore how people manage their finances throughout the country. We went to three different markets. San Francisco Bay Area, Denver, and Minneapolis. For three solid weeks we went into people’s homes, talked to them, and looked at their shoe boxes full of bills. You know, we really learned how people thought about and managed their money. And the result is that we created foundational tools for user-centered design. This included an end-to-end task model of categories for how people managed their finances. We captured people at different life stages, mindsets, goals, etc. That really got Wells Fargo to understand our customers’ needs and their mindset versus our product-for-services model.

I think another evolutionary leap occurred when I started to train people. I left the retail part of the bank and went over to the business-to-business side. I started to implement some of the same kinds of activities on the business-to-business side about user-centered design. I trained people on design thinking, which opened up this whole other realm of applying the concepts not just to software development projects but to all sorts of problem-solving areas, such as what technology systems should we invest in or retire?  How can we simplify pricing? How do we rethink our assumptions and processes around underwriting?

Q. Prototyping is a stage of design thinking. But you use something called rapid prototyping at Wells Fargo.

A. That’s been a huge shift in our culture and in our process. So, rapid prototyping is basically a workshop followed by a digitization of the outputs of that workshop. What it’s replacing is the process for how people used to pitch their ideas and get funding. No longer do we have to write a big, long business requirements document, and put together a PowerPoint that hopefully convinces senior leaders that they should fund your project. Now, product managers are coming to us and saying, let’s get a microcosm of a typical project team together and design what a good experience would look like for this idea.

We’re designing at the speed of thought. Everything is on post-it notes and little cardboard templates. And everybody is acting like a designer in that workshop trying to figure out what are the most critical elements of the experience.  We bring in customers after each sprint to use the prototype and give feedback.  When things don’t work, we fix them quickly and get more feedback. That can happen over multiple times, in a 20-minute period with one person. It’s a very iterative process.

Then after the workshop, we’ve all bought into the experience we created together. The maker (the designer) will use prototyping tools like Sketch and Invision to digitize the paper output. The product owner is then able to go into the pitch meeting with senior executives and say here’s the idea, this is the value to the customer and the business, and let me show you the prototype.  They share what worked, what didn’t work, what we learned, and why we made these decisions. We have a lot clearer communication and a lot more human-centered way of talking about the value of the idea. 

This interview was conducted by the team at Stonehill. Stonehill is a strategy and innovation firm that helps businesses to identify opportunity, implement change, and accelerate growth.  Our team consists of an innovative blend of creative, strategy, technology, and change management experts that allows us to unite the functional silos of business in the common objective of creating differentiated customer experiences.