citibank

Citibank’s $500M Lesson Shows the Importance of Human-Centered Design

Citibank was in the news this past week for accidentally wiring a $900M loan payment to lenders instead of the $8M they were supposed to get. The bank was able to get $400M back from lenders but couldn’t get the remaining $500M from others. A federal judge ruled against the bank, and the mistaken overpayment cost them $500M. How could this horrific mistake happen? Citibank argued that the accidental payment was made because of the poorly designed user interface (UI) in the application they used to make the transaction.

Upon hearing this story, I had two reactions: $500M is a lot of money to lose, and, is there a moral to this story? I agree with Jorge Arango that the “problems are deeper than UI.”

As a human-centered designer, one of the morals to this story is that an approach to human-centered design (HCD), paired with HCDAgile, could have averted this very expensive mistake. There are a lot of reasons why it’s important to use a human-centered design and development approach to prevent this from happening.

I want to shine a light on three main reasons that focus on how both the user and the business could benefit from HCD:

1. HCD can help discern the right problem to solve.

In the Citibank fiasco, the actual work of entering the transaction fell to subcontractor Akrokia Raj, who thought he was doing the right thing. The way we could explain this problem is either to blame the user for not using the “right” fields or blame the developers or designers for building this terrible UI:

From the business perspective, asking users to adjust their behavior to fit an application may appear the easiest path forward. But this approach leads to not only poor user experiences but also to business inefficiencies. Instead, taking an HCD approach leads to a deep understanding of the user’s tasks, workflow, environment, and technology. An HCD approach could have determined what was not working for Raj and team. In response, the users could have received a user-friendly, intuitive application that aligned with users’ expectations and supported users’ workflow better.

2. Co-creating with the end user helps you build the right thing the right way.

The amount of time not spent validating with users and going right into development may seem to be a faster approach but can end up leading to costly negative outcomes that this story highlights.

HCD encourages you to co-create the solution with the users throughout the process, from user interviews and observations, to workshops, to testing. Engaging with users will ensure that you are building the right thing for the user. Also, highlighting the users’ needs with the development team will give you the confidence that the team is building the software the right way that is intended for the user. Not only does HCD lead to creating a product that improves the lives of users, but also  reduces errors and increases accuracy – this ultimately leads to better user adoption and business outcomes. I see that as a win-win situation.

Not only does HCD lead to creating a product that improves the lives of users, but also reduces errors and increases accuracy – this ultimately leads to better user adoption and business outcomes. I see that as a win-win situation.

3. The best products comes when HCD is paired with Agile methodology: HCDAgile.

As a huge advocate for my industry, I want to emphasize that HCD alone is not enough for businesses to deliver the best product. My experience at 1904labs has shown me the success that the HCDAgile process can bring to businesses, when they take the time to seek to understand and identify what would add the most value before any development begins, then incorporates HCD during development as well.

Everybody brings their unique perspective and expertise to the table.

The teams that work in this fashion should focus on a three-legged stool, in which each leg represents one of the three areas (the business, the technology, and the user) that helps build a product. With that, everybody brings their unique perspective and expertise to the table. My HCD role on teams is to not only be a champion of the user, but also,  the empathetic dot connector in the development process and inside the business.

My HCD role on teams is to not only be a champion of the user, but also, the empathetic dot connector in the development process and inside the business.

The Citibank story is a sad story that didn’t have an ideal ending for the bank. Nobody wants to see this happening. Ultimately, the intended use of the application wasn’t clear for the end user and was a miss from the business. We can all benefit from learning how we could prevent events like this from happening in the future.


Read more about our HCDAgile process which brings together HCD and structured agile methodologies. 

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