Varo’s de los Reyes on building inclusive user design

August de los Reyes

To Varo, a digital-only banking startup which has more than 750,000 users, an inclusive user experience is its passport to growth.

Varo is looking to other digital-only financial players along with big-tech platforms like Google and Amazon for inspiration. The company’s chief design officer, August de los Reyes, was pulled from that ecosystem, with prior roles including Xbox head of design, head of design at Pinterest and director of user experience at Google.

In this episode of Fintech Unfiltered, he spoke to Bank Innovation about his approach to digital experience design and how his previous roles shaped his perspectives.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

You’re very outspoken about making technology inclusive. What does a more inclusive banking app look like?
In helping to design Xbox One, I wanted to make sure as many people as possible could enjoy the emotions and jubilation of playing games. You start with someone who’s excluded from a typical experience and actually optimize a solution for him or her, and that solution will benefit everyone else. The typewriter was originally invented for someone who was blind, but today we all kind of expect it. The same with the remote control, which was originally intended for people who couldn’t get up across the living room for themselves. What I realized is the approach for inclusive design could go beyond accessibility in terms of physical or mental ability differences. At Varo, we’re bucking a lot of these traditional norms. We look at people who aren’t the target consumer and create a situation that’s optimized for them and assume that it’ll benefit everyone else.

How does design factor into that?
At the surface level, designing a bank app seems to be about procedures, offerings, platforms and products that a bank might offer. If you think about the design intent of any video game, its primary intent is to generate distinct emotions. These emotions are generated from a fiction, but in fact, this is an entire software practice that uses data, machine learning and user testing to pinpoint the exact emotional responses the game designers want players to feel. If you take that framework and combine it with inclusive design, what we’re doing at Varo isn’t just creating the table stakes that a bank offers. We’re designing it to create that sense of safety, security, freedom and satisfaction.

How do you [respond to] emotions?
It’s really about observing customers. There are a lot of methodologies, both quantitative and qualitative, that can actually measure certain targeted emotions. You can simplify it by thinking of emotion like a vector. It’s just amplitude and direction. What we want is a positive direction, with as much amplitude as possible.

How do you create an app that encourages people to save?
There’s two approaches. You could say, “It’s a good idea to save, and all you have to do is set aside this amount every week.” That’s one approach. The other is more of a satisfying — [it’s an] exploratory and learning approach. Think about the last time you had to read an instruction manual to play a video game. Games provide the tools, resources and environment in which it’s safe to explore. When the user or the player comes to their own conclusion and sees they’re saving and using the tools that are made available to them, the fact that it’s discovered through their own exploratory learning [process] creates a sense of satisfaction. I’d even go so far as to say fun. I think that there are ways to elicit that behavior without being prescriptive or shoving it down people’s throats.

What are some of the common pitfalls you see with banking apps, and how is Varo trying to avoid them?
There’s an opportunity to focus on the actual human end goal of personal finance management. [A bank] can be so much more by helping people realize that freedom and security. It will translate all of these resources into outcomes that affect our everyday lives.

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