Designing Visions for Busy Organizations. Part II

Fabien Girardin Ways of Working

Putting Design Fiction into practice


The banking industry is facing major changes with the digitalization of its core business that impacts the management of risk, trust, identity and decision-making, among other things. As you have seen in Part I of this series of articles. At BBVA Data & Analytics, we spearhead BBVA’s transformation into a data-driven financial group. We operate like an ambidextrous organization with two lines of inquiry: the Inside, which is about delivering data engines to optimise and sustain the established banking industry, and the Edge, which is about exploring new growth engines (e.g. cost reduction, revenue generating, new experiences) through algorithmic research and experiments linked to business models.

At BBVA Data & Analytics, we believe the knowledge derived from financial data can transform the banking industry, its relation with customers and its role in the world. We design fictions to question our analytical capabilities through ‘What if’ scenarios.

Creating momentum with the team

Our data scientists are embedded within multidisciplinary teams from other divisions and business units. They are proactive partners who think ahead of the curve beyond incremental changes and consider the implications of their work. They participate in the framing of the problems and in the conception of ideas. Together, we examine information with an objective of regularly updating an actionable vision for our Edge agenda. They are tasked with delivering compelling insights, and experimenting with new technologies—without constraints—to contemplate these impacts and how they might best be progressed or mitigated. From this line of applied algorithmic research, we build “What if” scenarios.

By using Design Fiction, we can build speculative evidences and focus on tangible things for an organization to consider, in addition to static slides, demos and presentation documents.

While we like to “think outside the box” relative to a large financial group, we also strive to work within the vision of the organization and create understanding about it. By using Design Fiction, we can build speculative evidences and focus on tangible things for an organization to consider, in addition to static slides, demos and presentation documents. These materials directly feed the visions as part of BBVA transforming into a digital and data-driven organization.

Typically, we start mapping the ongoing lines of investigation as defined by our vision. Next, we project their evolution into two or three iterations and create stories about what could be: Potentially, what could the resulting technology feel like? Where could it be used? Who would use it, and for what type of experience? Then, we can group them into some future scenarios to explore in more depth.

Visions are dynamic and re-calibrated, from mapping ongoing lines of investigation to seeking feedback from their dissemination in public.

As a provocation to tell stories about these potential technologies, rather than jumping into the development of an actual product or service, we might create a fictional advertisement, videos that share a concept before we experiment it, release notes, or other “props” in order to gain some practical answers to questions which might arise. For instance: Is this now, or will it ever be legal? What kind of technology do we need to master to make it happen? Does this raise new social responsibilities for us as a business? Do we really want to create this as a team? Who within the organization would want this future and who would not?

Engaging the stakeholders

An organization is only as strong as its teams’ ability to collaborate with each other. We like to think that Design Fictions act as a totem or boundary objects for shared understanding, discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories.

As an example, let’s say that a team has developed an advanced recommender engine to create personalized and targeted promotion campaigns for small shop owners. We can imagine the business model which might be helpful for this type of product, but we need to understand what it will feel like. It helps the different stakeholders of a project to engage with essential questions, to understand what the desired experience might be, and why the team should design a recommender system one way and not another.

The mission of our Payments team is to create a world where services around money transactions become even more personalized and fair. A tangible vision stretching the imagination in context can open the door to new idioms and vocabulary.

What are the potential unintended consequences for a small shop owner to run its own promotion campaigns? What can she expect from the results? What will she be allowed to do? What won’t she do anymore? How does she interact with that technology the first time, and then routinely after a month, one year, or more? How does that service become a habit? Inventive and appreciable observations from these questions can expose fruitful insights before a project even starts production, simply by creating fictional customer reviews, a user manual, a press release, or ads in a language familiar to the organization.

In essence, our data scientists construct visions, with a vested interest in conveying to the organization that their experimental technologies can exist in the real world, in the near future. We are asking others to participate by sharing their thoughts on the main features, attributes, and characteristics of the experience from our point of view, (the possible, the ethical), the user’s point of view, (the desirable, the beneficial) and the business’ point of view (the profitable, the legal). This approach not only makes the vision more meaningful and resilient, it makes the organization behave as a learning organization, and that may just be part of its vision.

Convincing the decision makers

Design Fiction helps convince others of the benefits of a potential technological capacity. Feedback from people with different perspectives provides space for anticipating new opportunities and challenges. In effect, narrow frames of inquiry constrict vision, which can prevent people from exploring all aspects of an idea, thus limiting results, and often missing out on a great opportunity in favor of a workable one.

Decision makers, like most humans, crave certainty. They need to be told a story about what will happen next. Design Fictions provide a way to do that by asking strategic questions. They can push an organization to step into an uncomfortable zone which prompts them to explore the possibilities of world changing around value, risk, reputation, competition, and customers.

The visions that give an understanding of what an organization could aspire towards can also surface reactions as evidence of a barrier to change. Indeed, this type of reaction often validates the vision—as true innovation is rarely comfortable. Decision makers are often stuck in the modes of thinking and working which brought success in the past. Basically, Design Fiction can help get a feel of “what’s next” to mitigate feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. The goal is to leave people feeling inspired, not agitated.

For instance, a couple of years ago, our teams of data scientists became really good at detecting abnormal financial situations based on customer behaviors. We extrapolated that capacity into a vision around the possible advantages for customers with a bank account that can “drive itself” and automatically correct anomalies. We called this idea ‘Peace of Mind’, and used Design Fiction internally to express this potential by embedding the concept into a short story which explained how, and when, it would work. That exploration became one vision for 2017 at BBVA as CEO Carlos Torres explains at a Money2020 event:

Carlos Torres, CEO of BBVA, articulating his vision of “Peace of Mind”

Transforming the vision into a mandate

If response to a new concept is “What would we do next?”, we take it as a sign we’re on the right track. The near future will soon be the present, so there is a “need to constantly adapt and ask: what are we doing?, where should we go? and, what are others doing? Additional investigation through complementary tools such as the Business Model Canvas, Systems Thinking, Three Horizons, or Agile Vision, can also provide enriching answers to these questions and move from fiction to facts and reality.

What if the design of automation together with Machine Learning techniques can lead to a dynamic and fair definition of prices? We want to make sure our technological ambition and its consequences are fully articulated within potential value propositions.

Typical actions associated with Design Fictions involve building credibility, enlisting support, countering skepticism, creating momentum and sharing a common vision. A desired outcome of a Design Fiction is a team mandate to make the vision become reality.

We are living in an era when social rules and business models are between the “no more” and the “not yet”.

Shaping and sharing tangible visions

Design Fiction offers a set of values which advocates learning through curiosity, interrogation, and provocation using broadly connected themes. Like Science Fiction or an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Series Black Mirror, it can be a concrete demonstration of what emerging technologies can lead to, as well as unanticipated consequences. Design Fiction creates artifacts that deliver strategic insights to important questions. It can tell us more about the types of societies, and lives, an organization might help shape. It can tell us about the evolution of technologies, the world they might live in, the language used to describe them, people’s appropriations, the rituals, and the frustrations. It tells us about the ethics of the professionals who create these technologies, and the larger vision behind discovery. It tells us those who benefits from techno-science advances, and those who might be left behind.

We are living in an era when social rules and business models are between the “no more” and the “not yet”. Now is the time to make an effort to set up the right expectations and convince others to expand their capacity for better understanding of technological opportunities and their implications.

Design Fiction is an easy way to enhance the imagination and vision of overburdened organizations, teams and executives. This, in turn, creates a capacity to execute and take mandates to the next level.