Beacon is a redesigned mobile investment app for Vanguard which emphasizes approachability and progressive learning. The app’s interface and interaction design allows investors to easily accomplish investment tasks while growing their financial knowledge.
Early and consistent retirement investing is a proven strategy to achieve greater financial security later in life. Yet many Americans, particularly young investors, are not active or consistent in contributing to their retirement accounts. Popular financial services like Vanguard amplify this problem with frustrating digital products awash with investment jargon and usability issues.
Following the user centered design process, I investigated and iterated on ways to improve Vanguard's mobile investment experience.
The end result is Beacon: a redesigned mobile investment app which allows investors to easily accomplish investment tasks while growing their investing knowledge through interactive learning moments.
Many Americans are not active or consistent in contributing to their retirement accounts. Since time is one of the most important ingredients for successful investing, it means that a lot of us will be playing catch up to save enough money for retirement. The later we start investing, the more saving we have to do later — which might prove to be an impossible task.
This problem affects people of all ages, but for the purpose of this project, I focused on young investors (age 25-35) because research showed that a large percentage of consumers under age 35 both want and need financial support. They are at a critical point in their financial journey — and it could make or break their retirement plans.
What young investors need is a way to get started that is both educational and convenient. They need a path to investing which meets them where they are — both in terms of knowledge level and the way they prefer to engage with brands and services.
Vanguard is in a unique position to offer value to young investors. They have an array of low-cost investment products that are a particularly good fit for new investors and folks who prefer a simple and efficient portfolio.
But to reach this audience, Vanguard must keep pace with new, mobile-first entrants in the booming fintech category. It must reckon with its current digital experience, which frustrates and intimidates new and existing current customers alike. I saw an opportunity to attract younger customers by making investing easy and educational.
Vanguard can capitalize on this opportunity by conveying a simple message throughout the user experience: investing is something you can learn. They can secure a trusted relationship with an audience that has decades of investment opportunity ahead of them and who can create a network of financially savvy investors.
Beacon is a redesigned mobile investment platform for Vanguard. It is both a tool and a guide for investors through the process of starting and managing their Vanguard investment accounts.
Getting started with investing can be intimidating. An intuitive new sign-up flow uses data-driven recommendations and built-in learning moments to help new investors navigate the onboarding process.
Overly-complex dashboards make it hard for investors to know how their money is doing. A new clean, customizable account dashboard highlights only the information users need to understand their account performance.
Most financial products do not foster financial literacy among their users. Prominent information icons and "spotlight" interactions teach users about investing in the context of accomplishing financial tasks.
Retirement investing is difficult to sustain because the event itself may be decades away. New nudges and alerts recognize financial accomplishments in real time and encourage investors to save more and keep the momentum going.
Beacon is not a shipped product, so I do not have real-world outcomes to discuss. That said, I wanted to explore a few metrics against which Vanguard might gauge the impact of this work. I sought feedback from several designers in the field about the usefulness of these examples, and in turn, refined my approach.
Potential performance metrics
I followed a user-centered design process to investigate how to improve the mobile investing experience. Guided by user research, I identified several pain points and addressed them through new visual and interaction design solutions. Then I tested my designs with users in moderated sessions and created high-fidelity interactive prototypes incorporating their feedback.
To explore the sources and solutions for this problem, I employed the following research and design methods:
After identifying the highest-impact design opportunities, I structured the remainder of my project timeline into a series of two-week sprints. This structure allowed me to quickly concept and refine specific flows and features, test them with users, and iterate on the designs while integrating those learnings across my designs.
I looked at investment trends research to understand the larger context of customer behaviors and sentiments around retirement investing.
I found that, across the country, there is a lack of investing activity — either due to lack of education about investing, or as with the younger generation, a lack of trust in both the market and investment companies.
Early investing is critical to set the tone for financial security later in life. The later we start, the more saving we have to do later — which for some people might prove to be an impossible task.
I spoke with four Vanguard customers, as well five additional prospective and current investors, about their experience using digital financial products. I was also able to watch two Vanguard customers (one new, one existing) complete an investment task in person.
For the in-person interviews, I asked users to think aloud as they navigated the steps. I noted the places where they had the most issues and questions. These sessions confirmed some of my usability concerns from the product audit and surfaced new issues.
The app provides little guidance to new or returning users to accomplish task.
There are moments where users feel lost due to an unclear next step or unexplained financial term.
Both experiences lack appropriate visual and textual feedback to reassure or motivate users during the process.
Similar problems exist for investors regardless of the type of task or their experience level with the product.
People are not improving their product or investment knowledge over time.
I developed a proto-persona to help me ground my research findings in a single person's (or type of person's) experience. There is certainly an extent to a persona's accuracy and usefulness, but having another (even fake) human to reference is an empathetic exercise.
Following my initial research, I set project goals to guide the design process for Beacon's interface and interactions.
I used Don Norman’s three levels of processing as the starting point to develop Beacon's design principles, which focused on the goal of effective behavior change.
I decided to reimagine the Vanguard's mobile branding to better reflect the focus on approachability and education. The name Beacon conveyed a guide or companion, and I chose the lighthouse imagery to retain the thematic tie to the established brand.
I adjusted the colors and typography to tone down the overpowering Vanguard red and the impersonal feel that some users noted as off-putting. I also used illustrations and iconography to achieve a more friendly and slightly younger-leaning feel.
After identifying the highest-impact moments, I structured the remainder of my project timeline into a series of two-week sprints.
This structure allowed me to quickly concept and refine specific flows and features, test them with users, and iterate on the designs while integrating those learnings across my designs.
The account dashboard is arguably the most important screen in the app. It serves as a sort of command center for investors. As such, I focused on creating a structure that works for both novice and advanced investors.
Designing and testing the dashboard early on helped me understand how people think about their accounts and how to prioritize that information in other areas of the design.
Data Visualization – Through speaking with subject matter experts and testing the designs with real users, I learned it is difficult to hit the right balance between visual appeal and understanding with data visualizations. Through my iterations I redesigned my flow's primary visualization (the IRA Contribution chart) from a circle chart to a simpler linear bar chart.
Users didn’t understand things like percentages well, so they needed more context. Testing showed the bar chart visualization was easier to understand and aligned better with their expectations. Users noted the appeal of the simple layout which could be customized as they gained more knowledge.
My goal with the second sprint was to help people complete an IRA contribution faster — one of my target audience top tasks — then to reward them and prime future actions with new nudges and alerts.
Working on the IRA contribution flow helped me understand user attitudes toward checking their retirement accounts and the frequency of use.
Users liked the simplicity of the contribution form. They appreciated that the data visualizations matched what they saw on the dashboard. They liked the confirmation screen and the followup alerts that prompted them toward the next action.
I used my findings from user testing the first two sprints to inform initial designs for the new sign up flow. My goal was to maximize motivation and understanding to provide new investors a positive first experience with the product.
Users surprised me by noting how much of the "simplified" language I included in early iterations of the flow was still foreign to them. I realized that even common investment terms, used in most financial apps, are actually too complex for many users.
Users liked seeing their progress through the sign up process. They appreciated the "Recommended" labels throughout, which made otherwise difficult decisions easier for them, as well as the informative spotlight moments.