by Jim Garrett
In little over a year, our Certified Usability Analyst of the Month, Kara Pastour, has made a dramatic change at Principal Financial Group all while leading their UX Center of Excellence.
As Digital Experience Manager, Kara heads up a UX team of five, with four being CUAs. Under her leadership, there is now collaboration with UX teams across all business units – no small achievement within a Fortune 500 company.
What is the role for Manager of Digital Experience?
It is a pretty broad role, since experience management takes into account both digital and non-digital touch points; customers can interact with us via either avenue. And while not all touch points are digital per se, they usually end up that way in some shape or form. We use a holistic approach to improving the customer journey by keeping in mind the customer’s varying touch points to improve their experience with the Principal Financial Group brand as a whole.
Related to improving our user experience with our brand, we launched a few months ago a major redesign of our website – now built on a completely different platform. This new platform allows us to build and design the site in a way that supports scalability and is easier to maintain and iterate upon. It is an overall better design and structure that will allow us to grow our digital presence for the company as a whole, and within the business units, by providing better access to informational or transactional elements that our users need. We are becoming more competitive in the marketplace with our constantly improving digital presence.
In addition to this major redesign, and continued collaboration with other internal UX teams, we’ve also been busy building out our user experience testing capabilities and resources, as well as revising our existing presence on several social media platforms.
What major UX projects have you tackled before coming to Principal?
I was heavily engaged for UX expertise during an international RFP phase which helped to secure a $30 million contract with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. After the award announcement, I went on to lead the UX strategy of the Calculating Quality Reporting Service (CQRS) system. This included establishing the systems’ information architecture, user interface design and interaction patterns, and usability testing. I also served as a key project liaison between many parties, from NHS project stakeholders and end users, to development and QA teams, to successfully deliver the Calculating Quality Reporting Service.
Who are your customers at Principal?
There are quite a few different customer types. There is the individual investor who invests via their employer through the Principal. Then there are the businesses that offer our financial solutions to their employees. We also offer other financial, insurance, and specialty benefits products on both a national and global level.
Do you manage the UX for all these different customer categories?
My role is to head up the UX Center of Excellence (COE) within the Global Center for Brand & Insights, under the leadership of Beth Brady, our CMO. The UX COE team leads the collaboration with the user experience teams of the different business units working towards a unified experience across our different products for our different user types. We don’t silo our efforts by improving the users’experience in one business area and then go to another business area and have users do something completely different. A disjointed experience leaves users in a place of discomfort and unfamiliar territory. Instead, the UX COE and business unit user experience teams work together to research and establish standards – these standards provide a unified solution for all teams to work from that results in a more cohesive approach that bodes a better experience for our users and ultimately our brand.
How do you lead this from a UX point of view – this unified approach?
We meet with the user experience teams from the different business units weekly, sometimes more often. We cover areas within the realm of a user experience that need to be decided upon that will either directly, or indirectly, impact our users. We standardize the components being used within the front end of our different digital properties – we then provide these standardized components via a common code set that all teams can leverage. It is an exciting time at Principal Financial Group because we have truly built a collaborative approach amongst the experience teams, where all who participate have a vested interest in contributing to, and supporting, our collective decisions. There is no dictatorship – we collaborate.
How does your UX group interface with the business side?
We drive collaboration with the business units by first understanding their business goals, and users, so that we may strategically help define a solution wherein the business and users both find success. Even though most business units work a little differently, they still at the end of the day have the same goals – wanting their users to be successful. We support business goals by helping to ensure their users are successful and experience positive interactions with our brand.
How are you able to test the results with this unified approach?
Our UX COE has a fairly robust usability lab with a variety of usability testing tools at hand. To have a well-run lab requires equivalent talent to take full advantage of the capabilities of the lab. We are fortunate to have some extremely talented experts in user research and experience testing who run the lab and all testing related efforts. We run a variety and any number of experience tests at any given time – remote unmoderated, onsite moderated, some variable A/B split tests, etc.
What sort of changes have you seen in the year you have been there?
It is definitely more collaborative. It was a much different environment before I came, and I think the environment has gotten increasingly more open and collaborative. I hear from people not infrequently who see this change, especially in such a short time frame, as impressive. We have gotten to the point where we have a solid collaboration amongst UX teams across the business units. Within this large of a company, to me, that’s a pretty big deal.
Does having four CUAs on your staff give you a spoken and unspoken language you use?
Yes, I think so. We show through our credentials, but even more importantly we show through our capability. Having our CUA certification establishes a best practices foundation from which to work.
What would you say are the results of the change into more of a collaborative approach?
I would say that it has given everybody a more positive outlook. There is a lot of excitement around this shift to a collaborative environment. People understand they can speak up and that people will openly listen to their ideas – they are not afraid to share. There is more positive interaction and healthy debate. I think that’s an important distinction to highlight. The debate we have is healthy and constructive. In addition, we are all sharing ideas and research that ultimately contribute to a Fortune 500 company’s user experience standards, and that’s something we all take pride in.
So everybody comes out feeling empowered and part of the process because they are allowed to express or challenge?
Yes, exactly. We respect each other’s opinion on a topic even if we don’t come to a consensus right away. Depending on the topic, we might decide to test an idea and then make a decision based on our tests’ quantitative or qualitative insights. We all start from the basis of a common language with us all being CUAs on top of the many years of user experience everyone collectively brings to the table. One way or another we ultimately come to a consensus that moves us forward.
Where do you find your satisfaction in all this?
I find satisfaction in always working on behalf of our users and ensuring their success. Many times this means operating from an external viewpoint instead of an internal one. It’s a great feeling leaving a room after a UX strategy session thinking, wow, we just made some decisions that are going to ensure success for our users. Those decisions ultimately contribute back to our company in a very positive way. I find that when your users are successful, your company will likely be successful too.
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