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How BMO challenges top down thinking with user centered design

Placing users at the center of product design has many proven benefits, but above all, it helps companies create a product that reflects real customer needs. UX research and testing help companies determine what will go into the product’s first iteration and how it will evolve over time to serve users as their needs continually change.

Unfortunately, this mindset isn’t often adopted by companies in industries like financial services who are sticklers for traditional top-down thinking and decision making. This mindset has stuck because product teams in such companies don’t think they have the capabilities or buy in of top executives to create and change their product based on multiple sources of input. This becomes especially difficult to cope with now that the digital landscape and accompanying consumer demands are evolving so rapidly.

“When smartphones came out, and while banks like BMO were not the first to release apps, we did catch up. Things now are changing a lot faster and we are expected to keep up which has been difficult for  financial services to do – for example: chat bots, voice activated controls – those types of interfaces are where things are changing and we are expected to respond quickly”

-Ryan Whitham, Senior Digital Product Owner, BMO Financial Group

BMO: A digital role model

BMO Financial Group is among the advanced companies who are breaking through their industry’s traditionalist shackles. Ryan Whitham is the senior digital product owner at BMO whose team has learned to create not only innovative digital products, but dynamic product development processes.

Ryan shared with us how the development of BMO’s robo advisor taught him and his team about the importance of placing the user at the center of the design process. That project opened the door to a really user-focused design process that has replaced the traditional internal-top down-consensus model that the bank used to operate under. This process has continued to evolve and improve ever since, as the team works to create digital products that are created for and with their customers.

How it all started

In 2015, the digital product team was challenged to bring a robo advisor to market faster than everyone else who was trying to enter the space. At the time, there was a daunting perceived threat of other Canadian banks and fintech companies who were thinking the same way. Disruptive tech start up WealthSimple was just entering the space with a low-cost digital offering for people to invest their money.

The first stage of the robo advisor’s development was treated like a traditional business case: an executive team determined that they needed to build one because robo advisors were really popular in the US, and the Canadian market was going to follow suit.

The problem & key learnings

The problem with this initial stage of the process was that it included no input from the users or the market at all; there were no user interviews or testing until phase two when a working prototype was already created.

That second phase is when the digital product team realized the value of putting the target demographic clients in front of a product they’ve never seen before. While it was still a traditional 1:1 user testing model, it worked to help them gauge feedback. It brought the team insights they were missing and wished they had before they started to build the product.

This new mindset was carried forward to inspire a new product development process for the team:

“That project opened the door to a really user centred design as opposed to ideas driven by internal consensus or whoever is the most senior in the room. Putting the user in the centre of the experience helped us to prioritize features and understand where to make improvements”

Here is how that evolved into a whole new digital product development process for BMO:

Co-Creation –> Validation –> User Testing –> Listening and Iterating


The product development process now starts with in-depth research with a small sample group. The team spends three hours each with 2-5 clients in the demographic they are building for, asking them a series of questions about the problem that the new product is aiming to solve:

  • How do they complete this task today?
  • Where is there pain and room for improvement?
  • What does their ideal state look like?


The next step is to validate the ideas and themes that came out of those focused sessions with a larger group. The BMO Community is a group of clients who have volunteered to be sent surveys up to once a month to be engaged with product development studies. This helps the team to get feedback in a quantitative, scalable way to ensure they are on the right track before building anything to put in the hands of users.


Once all of the feedback and input gets consolidated, then a prototype is put together for users to try out. Unmoderated user testing is implemented to get insights on what fine tuning and product usability tweaks are needed. The advantage of this unmoderated technique is that the overhead cost and work effort required from the product team is minimal.


Even after conducting all of this research pre-launch, it’s important to be able to anticipate that more alterations and iterations of your product will be required. Once its products go live, BMO gathers feedback through analytics, net promoter scores and anecdotal feedback from call centres and bank branches.

This is the stage of product development that is undergoing the most change for companies like BMO. Now that the technology exists, teams can use experimentation and rollout tools to gather in-the-moment feedback that can be implemented right away instead of waiting for quarterly net promoter scores and collecting unstructured feedback from call centres. This helps keep the focus on the users and yields the ability to collect even more feedback collection after launch to continually tweak the details of the product so it’s a perfect fit for customers.

Process iteration is never over

The way that BMO has approached building their digital products has come so far, but is still improving, which Ryan acknowledges with excitement:

“Nobody has solidified their process and completely said ‘we are done’. I’ve seen ours move so much but we’re definitely not done; The door was opened a couple years ago with this robo advisor project and it’s going to keep changing, we are looking to still optimize it.”

How to build customer led product teams

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Ryan is Senior Digital Product Manager at BMO Bank of Montreal. He joined BMO in 2015 as part of the Digital Channels group. His primary focus is delivering leading digital experiences to Wealth Management clients. In 2016, he was part of the team that launched of SmartFolio, the first bank owned robo-advisor in Canada. Ryan has over 10 years of financial services experience with a dedicated focus on client experience, design and technology. Ryan has a bachelor’s of Design degree with OCAD University and on his off time enjoys good coffee at any local Toronto café.