Project CUE: Designing with the Customer in Mind

March 16, 2016

“No facts exist inside the building, only opinions.”– Steve Blank

It’s natural to view a problem and its potential solution from our individual perspectives. That’s why AEO’s Project CUEis using design thinking strategies to encourage us to step outside of our own proverbial buildings and talk to as many potential end-users and stakeholders as possible. In our second and third blog posts about Project CUE, we discussed how design thinking informed our understanding of project stakeholders and their visions of the short-term and long-term future. In this blog post, we’re going to share how we’re implementing a key tool in the design thinking toolkit -- User Personas -- to achieve our goals for the project.*

What is a user persona? In the design process, it’s a fictional person that represents a significant segment of a product’s potential customer base and reflects conversations held and research conducted by the product development team. The user persona usually includes demographic information such as name, profession, hometown, age, gender, income, as well as their goals, needs, and challenges. The persona attempts to capture what the targeted user is doing, thinking, and feeling when considering your product.

User personas help multidisciplinary teams (like ours) focus their design and problem-solving efforts instead of attempting to solve an issue for an infinite number of constituents. As we continue to develop our solution, our team will often ask ourselves the question “will this new product feature be as important to the persona of Kathy, the Lending Director, as it is to the persona of Rochelle, the Small Business Owner?” Kathy and Rochelle are just two examples of the multiple user personas we’re developingrepresenting different roles and responsibilities within CDFI organizations as well as diverse business owners representing different capital requirements, business and personal demographics. Here’s more on Kathy and Rochelle:

Kathy Davis, 42, works as Lending Director for a CDFI in Missouri. Kathy loves coming into work every day because no two days are alike, but more importantly, she feels great playing a role in helping people. Through her work at the organization, she’s proud to be one of few business leaders in the area that create opportunities at scale. Her stakeholders include the lending team and her clients, the small business owners. When it comes to her primary goals and aspirations in her role, Kathy ranks relationship building, establishing trust, and meeting loan goals as high priorities. However, she faces some challenges and concerns such as finding qualified applicants and being vigilant about fraud. Additionally, she runs into issues where applicants think they’re experts on lending yet still lack basic knowledge of financial terms.

Rochelle Jones, 45, is a small business owner in St. Louis, Missouri. Rochelle is motivated by the desire to be her own boss and to make a living doing something she enjoys. She also has a vested interest in the lives and welfare of her employees and her community. Despite having just a high school degree, Rochelle generated $336,000 in revenue last year running 4 Kids Only, a daycare center for 35 children, and sees significant unmet demand for her center’s services in her community. She’s excited by the opportunity to expand her business and is seeking a $15,000 loan. She is not aware of her business’s credit score and has a personal credit score of 580. Rochelle speaks English only. When it comes to technology, Rochelle describes her comfort level as low to medium. She has a smartphone, but doesn’t use social media and rarely uses apps. Her comfort level with lending processes and financial services could be considered low to medium. 

Sometimes the process of compiling meaningful personas can seem daunting due to the extensive research and interviews necessary to make them as accurate as possible. However, when done right, it can be illuminating. “It was helpful to go through the [user personas] exercise to look at all of the different types of clients we serve, from very small start-ups to budding real estate mavens. For people outside the lending space or outside the day-to-day of working directly with entrepreneurs, it provides a clarifying starting point to get a better understanding of how CDFIs operate and who they serve. It also helped me, as a lender, try to take an outside perspective on how the customer feels going through the process,” says Courtney Lynn, a loan underwriter at ACE, a Georgia-based CDFI.

Well-designed personas will enable us to keep in mind the full user experience as we develop our Project CUE solution. For example, through the user persona development exercises, we learned that small business owners often feel frustrated by loan application processes. We’ll explore how that discovery will impact our approach to Project CUE in our next blog post about developing User Journeys.

In the meantime, our team feels like the user persona process, and design thinking as a whole, has helped us to really get to the heart of what CDFIs and small business owners think, feel and most importantly, need. Tammy Halevy, Project CUE’s leader, put it best: “Design thinking has reinforced what the research and data over several years is saying to us. The design thinking component is important because it takes what is true analytically and makes it human.”

As we continue our work, the Project CUE team will leverage and consider our user personas throughout the process - not only for design inspiration, but to validate or disprove design decisions, prioritize features and functions, and even determine the appropriate messaging for various communications. In addition, we will actively turn to colleagues like Courtney at four leading CDFIs for critiques of our design. We’ll rely on our banking partners and small business owners for feedback, too!

When it comes to small business lending, which of our two user personas shared above do you most resemble, “Kathy” or “Rochelle?” Let us know with a comment below or find us on Twitter

* What is Project CUE? In 2015, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s inaugural CDFI Innovation Challengecalled for submissions of proposals to help expand the capacity of financial institutions to provide credit, capital, and financial services to underserved populations and communities in the United States. AEO’s winning bid proposed building a platform to move loan applicants “from decline to delight:” to appear at the critical point in the lending process when an institutional lender declines an applicant and pivot that moment into an opportunity to introduce CDFIs as potential lenders.


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