An Interview with Joe Smiley, Experience Design Leader at E*TRADE

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Joe Smiley is a respected design leader, team-builder, and innovative technologist with over 20 years of experience designing and developing experiences for many Fortune 500 brands – including E*TRADE, PwC, Marriott, AOL, Disney, FedEx, Strayer University, and Sysco Food – as well as numerous government agencies and non-profits.

How Do Companies Leverage Customer Experience (CX) for Disruption?

Customer Experience (CX) goes beyond developing trendy products and services. It’s really about listening to customers, identifying their needs, and then developing meaningful experiences to meet their needs in order to continuously build trust and grow the customer relationship.

In the past, good customer experiences were made up of three things from the customer’s perspective:

  1. Usable – intuitive and easy to use

  2. Reliable – is available and accurate

  3. Functional – they deliver value


However, customer expectations are always changing, where they now expect meaningful, pleasurable, and convenient experiences. This new reality has opened up the door to companies willing to invest in their Customer Experience, often leading to disruption.

While everyone knows that Apple is an incredible disruptor, many may not know that they’ve continuously built loyalty by radically enhancing their customer experience. It starts with Apple designing and developing incredibly beautiful and intuitive products, which customers love due to the brilliant design and ease of use.


From there, Apple’s digital experience works seamlessly across all of their hardware products with incredible performance and almost zero malware. This is attributed to the fact that their products are designed and deployed in a closed ecosystem, built with the best engineers in the world, and all 3rd party apps are thoroughly reviewed and tested before publishing into the App Store.

Additionally, they provide a high-touch learning and support experience with Apple experts in their retail stores via the Genius Bar. All of this equates to one of the leading Customer Experiences in the tech industry with an extremely loyal – cult like – customer base, having reached 90% loyalty in 2018.


This is directly a result of Steve Jobs’ brilliance at not only building Apple, but how he operated it and built the products that revolutionized the technology industry and the lives of millions of their customers who use their products daily.

How Does Design Enable Extraordinary Customer Experiences?

Design is an extraordinary catalyst for innovation and transformation because it leads us to explore and embrace new, unique, and often unpredictable points of view. To effectively implement a unique and differentiated Customer Experience, many companies like Apple and E*TRADE are utilizing one of the primary design methods, Design Thinking, because it enables companies to break out of their old thinking in order to find new ways to innovate and ideate new products, services, and solutions. Once a product or service is conceptualized, it can be developed and optimized by applying Human-Centered Design, which is a more nuanced Design Thinking approach that focuses on developing and improving the experience and engagement of a certain product or service by looking at the world with deep empathy through your customers’ perspective.

We’re able to look at our products differently when we can think like our customers, and this provides us with new opportunities to solve problems and overcome challenges that otherwise may be impossible to solve. Maintaining this customer mindset is a priority – even when our company is doing well – because it helps us track the evolving needs and wants of our customers and the broader market, which helps us offer new products and services that add meaningful value for them. The bottom line is if a company is not keeping up with the changing needs and wants of their customers, someone else will.

How Does E*TRADE Utilize Design to Shape the Customer Experience?

As previously mentioned, many companies – including E*TRADE – are now focused on developing, enhancing, and managing their Customer Experience to gain a competitive edge and disrupt markets. With so much emphasis on external customers, most executives tend to forget about their employees’ Customer Experience.

At E*TRADE, we’ve discovered a lot of value in enhancing our employee experience through the use of Human-Centered Design. Internal surveys don’t always accurately capture the true needs and goals of employees, so I lead our discovery process into understanding our employees through extensive user research. This involves everything from interviewing teams, shadowing employees to understand their work utilizing various technologies, and also diving into the analytics. This kind of user research allows departments to enhance the employee experience with new technologies and innovations.

For example, we discovered through our user research that many employees were having trouble finding the right resource at the right time to help do basic IT tasks, whether it was resetting a password or installing a new application. We utilized Design Thinking to help explore new solutions, and determined that deploying virtual agents or “chatbots” internally could remedy these issues by recognizing the employee request and then intelligently route them to the right resource, website, and/or service request. This forward-thinking innovation helps to not only improve the employee experience, but it also enhances our ability to serve our customers.


What is the Future of Design?

I believe the future of design will be extraordinary as the centerpiece of the next business revolution – the Design Revolution. It will eclipse all other previous revolutions in its size and scale as it transforms business and the enterprise as we know it today, unlocking trillions and trillions of dollars in new revenue for organizations by creating new innovative industries, businesses, products, and services. I call it “Strategic Design,” which is the future of business because it puts design first in everything you do, as opposed to being an add-on or afterthought for most companies. It also elevates design beyond a single department and into the very foundations of an organization.


The challenge most organizations face today is that design is rarely utilized beyond the design department. This is largely due to the fact that design is seldom represented in the C-suite of most companies, as business leaders continue to buy into the myth that design thinking and approaches should only be used among the creative staff. To differentiate and remain competitive, companies continue using the same old business methods (e.g. incremental improvement, cost cutting, layoffs, M&A, etc.) hoping for different results; it’s truly the definition of insanity.

The lack of adoption goes even deeper into societal norms, where we’re taught from an early age in our schools via standardized tests that IQ – and not creativity and/or emotional intelligence – is the true standard measure of intelligence. If today’s business leaders want to truly position their companies to innovate and lead their markets, they need to quickly learn how to embed design into the very fabric of an organization's culture, strategy, and operations. The potential upside is virtually unlimited, where we merely need to look at Apple – where Strategic Design was first implemented – who recently became the first company ever to be valued at over a trillion dollars.

Steve Jobs knew the power of design, and he discovered over time that there was no better way to establish an innovative company, create a thriving business culture, and develop unique competitive advantages. Nothing embodies his commitment to design more than his famous quote that “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Jobs was able to implement design and design thinking from the top down in all aspects of Apple, utilizing empathy in all the company’s initiatives. He placed design first. Design was the corporate strategy. Design was the product strategy. Design was the service strategy. It was unique because no company had ever adopted this design first approach before. And it worked. Steve used it to build and grow Apple into one of the most successful companies of all time.

Tell Us About Starting DSRUPTR

I started DSRUPTR to share my perspective on my 20+ years of experience working at the intersection of design, technology, and business, as well as to lead organizations in the successful implementation of strategic design methodologies, leading to disruptive innovation. The DSRUPTR site features relevant topics and case studies about everything from the future of design, to the importance of implementing Agile & Lean methods, to influencing human behavior with gamification. Another motivation for creating DSRUPTR is for continuous learning, where I’m excited to research and learn about new innovations, methodologies, and technologies, and then share them with the world.


About: Joe Smiley

Joe Smiley is a respected design leader, team-builder, and innovative technologist with over 20 years of experience designing and developing experiences for many Fortune 500 brands - including E*TRADE, PwC, Marriott, AOL, Disney, FedEx, Strayer University, and Sysco Food - as well as numerous government agencies and non-profits. He currently leads E*TRADE’s Experience Design team utilizing Human-Centered Design to research, design, and develop world class experiences across platforms while utilizing emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), voice user interface (VUI), and blockchain technologies. He is also a successful entrepreneur who co-founded and ran multiple technology firms, and recently served as a judge for the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship competition. He holds an MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business with a focus on strategy and entrepreneurial studies, and a B.A. in Design from Virginia Tech. He is based in Fairfax, Virginia, loves to travel and cook with his wife Jenna, and a fun fact is that he’s only 3 degrees separated from Kevin Bacon. His passionate ideas on design and technology can be followed on DSRUPTR.


 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.