Societe Generale was originally created 155 years ago to provide financial services and to promote the development of trade and industry in France, with the mission of offering innovative solutions from generation to generation. Today, corporations and financial institutions continue to come to Societe Generale CIB for their expertise in managing foreign exchange risks, the ability to issue their capital and the access they provide to specific markets, to name a few examples.

So where does the role of UX design come into all of this? Looking over the last 10 years, financial environments have come a long way from manual spreadsheets and hours of calculations. The deeply complex and fragmented IT systems that were originally empowering are now needing to adapt to a new focus: the user.

As times have changed, Societe Generale’s approach to digital services have evolved. They too are adopting a user-driven focus as a new way to empower clients.

Societe Generale headquarters in La Defense, in Paris, France.
Societe Generale headquarters in La Defense, in Paris, France.

“The idea is to keep empowering businesses to provide clients with financial expertise, while infusing a user-focused mindset – It is an organizational change that enabled our ability to place UX and design at the core of our digital approach” said Morgane Peng, director of user experience at Societe Generale, who leads an international and multidisciplinary design team responsible for the design vision and strategy of the Corporate and Investment Banking (CIB) activities.

Trading floors of Societe Generale's Corporate and Investment Banking activities in La Defense, in Paris, France.
Trading floors of the Corporate and Investment Banking activities in La Defense, in Paris, France.

A foot in the door leads to big change

The UX team had its beginning in 2014. Morgane came to design from the business side – in addition to her regular work she was given the task of coordinating a design audit project on some of the existing corporate and investment banking web services. From that small foot in the door, which was a simple design audit, the bank decided to enforce more design acumen, tools and frameworks. The value of design was clearly enough to start pursuing and the vision was to close the gap between design and business for the sake of the users.

Morgane’s team has continued to grow organically since its start, now having an impact on over 150 applications and services and counting.

Morgane Peng at Societe Generale One Bank Street, London, UK.
Morgane at Societe Generale One Bank Street, London, UK

Using doodles to explain user centricity

Investor days are, by nature, serious moments. In these high-stake public events presentations are made by the CEO and top management in front of a live audience, usually investors and journalists. So when the Chief Digital Officer agreed to reuse doodles that Morgane made about how digital platforms are focusing on a more human experience, his presentation did change the mood in the room a little bit.

Morgane explained, “There’s so much more to a doodle when it comes to explaining the strategy. For me, it’s also clearer than 5 PowerPoint slides.”

Before, a lot of tedious manual work was done in Outlook, Excel, and Powerpoint. Client interactions were done via email or Bloomberg chat. “We were product-focused and expert-focused,” commented Morgane. The client would only have contact with their banker at Societe Generale, and everything beyond that would be out of reach. Internally, the flow communication was also difficult, as you can see in the drawing below.

A GIF illustrates the siloed nature of Societe Generale's previous internal communication flow where client feedback was only received directly by their banker.
Image credit Morgane Peng for Societe Generale Digital Day, 22 Nov 2018.

The ambition now, as documented in this article and shown in the illustration below, is to make Societe Generale user-focused and use-case focused. The client now has clear and open communication with everyone involved in their transactions, while communication internally is shared and simple. This is the kind of overall experience that Societe Generale wants to offer to their users.

A GIF illustrates the revised communication flow for Societe Generale which incorporates product feedback from clients across internal teams.
Image credit Morgane Peng for Societe Generale Digital Day, 22 Nov 2018

Forming the right team takes time

To achieve this goal, Societe Generale needs exceptionally talented and collaborative UX designers that could make sense of the complexity of user needs and find effective and elegant solutions, and who can think systematically, especially when use cases are linked within the SG Markets ecosystem. This is why it took a long time to build the design team for Societe Generale.

December 2019 team meetup in Societe Generale Les Dunes, France.
December 2019 team meetup in Societe Generale Les Dunes, France.

“We scaled Design by optimizing how we work with other people in the organization. People may be surprised to know that we have reached 18 designers over 6 years! Doing this progressively allowed everyone to bring their uniqueness and specialties to complement the team and I’m very proud of this today,” stated Morgane. Having holistic design knowledge, a focus on the user and user research, the ability to connect with people and projects naturally, and an in-depth understanding of visual perception and design are foundations of their design team philosophy.

Rethinking complexity in B2B finance

Solving problems in the B2B financial space offers rich design challenges. The Societe Generale design teams have to be comfortable in designing in unfamiliar environments. They need to gain specific industry knowledge, e.g., how companies grow and how funds are managed. “Each new project comes with a new lens on how the economy and companies work,” said Morgane.

Using design patterns is an important part of how online services are delivered as Societe Generale is continually changing its processes, including the methods of collaboration. For example, Morgane and her UX team are now designing in the browser more and more and using code as a design material as a way to collaborate more efficiently with the developers.

The team is specifically evolving and creating design patterns to help remove some of the complexity from their design process. “A great example is filtering patterns – we have a lot of use cases for it from having to deal with so much data. Having a clear decision tree specifically saves so much time for the team when it comes to this pattern.”

Design System documentation for financial institution, Societe Generale.
Image credit SG Design System documentation

Balancing user needs of security and privacy

The design team follows the same regulatory training as the rest of Societe Generale’s employees, which encompasses data privacy, know-your-customer policies, and confidentiality levels. The goal is to have designers understand how regulations and policies impact clients. “This is something we put in place since the very beginning when the team was formed,” said Morgane, “I know it’s dreadful, but it’s so important to keep these topics in mind in our day-to-day design work.

A prime example is the login process for SG Markets. “In the past we found out that users could be signing in up to 80 times a day, it was very system focused. In SG Markets the sign in system adapts behind the scenes to the right level of security depending who you are, what you’re doing and even where you are.” detailed Morgane. In a highly regulated setting, these are often overlooked by designers and are the responsibility of security and legal teams, partly because of the amount of regulations and technical information.

Because Societe Generale is already highly regulated as a bank, an awareness of protecting clients and their data is one of the areas where the finance industry is historically ahead of all the data protection acts.

Example of a secured service provided by Societe Generale Markets.
Example of a secured service of SG Markets.

In terms of the design process itself, having Adobe XD as a design tool that is able to work in Societe Generale’s secure environment is crucial for the ability to do good design. “I’ve committed since the beginning of the UX team to not isolate designers from the rest of the organization,” said Morgane. “Hence all our tools run on our enterprise network, and fit with the control, reliability, and security requirements that you can expect from a bank. This empowers everyone in a project to work efficiently: we can share files, data, and collaborate seamlessly in the same corporate network. If you want design to really work at scale, it must be embedded in the organization, design tools like XD included!”

UI Kit for a financial services provider in Adobe XD.
Screenshot of the UI kit in Adobe XD.

Designing internationally

Societe Generale operates in 67 different countries, but service availability varies in different regions or countries due to local regulation or local coverage. By default, Societe Generale CIB provides services in English, and additional language support is decided at the local level by product teams. Language decisions for the French, German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese markets are done by local teams due the variety of financial terms within Societe General’s services, but that said the design team has a head start as it is very international with people of many nationalities – located in London, Paris, and New York.

“We’re aiming at being consistent when using a language across all our services; this is why the content section has naturally found its way into our design system,” said Morgane. “We have general content guidelines, specific guidelines for headings, titles, error messages, and call-to-actions. We’ve also established having a consistent voice with flexibility in choosing the right tone according to the type of service and target language audience.”

Screen preferences and changing habits toward mobile

Societe Generale CIB operates in the B2B space, and has started to see similar trends to consumer banking. Clients want access to their data and information on the go, but still prefer to operate complex financial tasks and actions on desktop. A common request from clients however is a shift towards tablets – as SG Markets services are all web based, responsiveness was already designed in and wasn’t a technical restraint. That said the move towards mobile devices has led to the design team refining some modules to be displayed correctly whether on a small display or a huge 32 inch screen. The mobile experience is especially taken into consideration when designing new modules.

A typical UX designer work setup at Societe Generale in Les Dunes, France.
A typical work setup at Societe Generale in Les Dunes, France.

The design team avoids making desktop-only interactions, like the highly requested right-click menu, and incorporates alternatives to avoid excluding non-desktop users.

“People in corporate and investment banking do not want to use their personal device for work-related actions,” said Morgane. With the current COVID-19 situation however, having easier access to financial services from home (and on personal devices) is more important than ever for Societe Generale clients to maintain their businesses. “We’re expecting much more mobile or small device usage going forward,” stated Morgane.

Challenges and rewards of UX in financial services

UX is still an evolving component of the financial services industry. Societe Generale is a historic institution that has changed its business approach by incorporating UX into its product, by looking at internal strengths with a user-centric focus while designing within financial regulatory frameworks to balance ease of access and security of privacy of client banking information.

What Morgane finds most rewarding is the range and depth of design that B2B products have. As explained in her UX efficient frontier article, unlike large consumer base products – that offer the simplest experience to the largest number – products for Experts or Employees have to be tailored to their specific professional usages.
Depending on the audience, the designers’ challenge is to find the sweet spot between the “not too simple” and “not too complicated”. Morgane finishes, “This is our bread-and-butter as a B2B design team. We constantly assess how to design the best experience for professional users while accommodating their business complexity.”