When America First launched its Innovation Center in June 2016, the Utah credit union’s version of an innovation lab stood out for two reasons. First, it would be open to the public — a place where regular people would be able try out new solutions and services in a hands-on environment. Second, everything this special branch would do would be real transactions — involving real money and credit.
“Everything we do here is ‘production’,” explains Jeremy Deamer, Manager of Branch Systems Development at America First. “We just do it in a different way.”
In other words, when America First tries out new ideas, approaches, technologies and equipment, they are doing so with “live ammo.” That was something top management insisted on when Deamer returned from a field trip in 2015 that included a tour of Allied Irish Bank’s The Lab. Inspired to launch their own incubator for new ideas, John Lund, President and CEO, saw this as a way to collaborate with America First’s members and its business partners.
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Everything Can Change — Even the Walls
The Innovation Center represents a departure for America First, and that’s by design. The office is located in City Creek Center, a huge shopping, dining, and entertainment center in downtown Salt Lake City. This retail hub draws America First members from many of the credit union’s markets. This enables the institution to try out new ideas on a broad cross-section of consumers.
At 3,100 square feet, the Innovation Center is smaller than most of the traditional locations that in the institution’s 132-branch network, but larger than the grocery store outlets that make up most of the rest.
Also unlike other America First locations, the Innovation Center was created to be an entirely fluid environment. “There is nothing in this space that is a permanent fixture,” explains Deamer. “It’s always changing. The floor plan is very adaptable.”
Walls and surrounds can be interchanged depending on what America First wants to test at any given time. Deamer credits the modularity of the design to the branding and marketing firm. Technology partners and vendors help bring the latest products and devices before the credit union’s members.
Deamer says everything consumers experience is subject to rotation on 30-, 60-, and 90-day plans, depending on what’s lined up in the schedule.
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More Than Shuffling Furniture Around
But this live lab’s fluidity doesn’t just involve the ability to move walls and equipment around. What the visitor sees and touches represents only part of what’s being experimented with. Software and the approach to customer experience also changes, as America First iterates different ideas.
Many new consumer-facing banking technologies get tryouts in the lab to see what clicks with consumers. Self-service banking is a good example of this, and the Innovation Center yielded several insights in this area.
First, there was a generational surprise. Self-service solutions resonated more strongly with older consumers, not with Millennials as most would expect.
“Our older demographics gravitate toward self-service solutions,” says Deamer. He believes this is because they’ve become used to it, and appreciative of it, at groceries and home centers.
By contrast, Millennials, while liking the technology, have told America First not to ditch tellers, “though younger groups are growing more comfortable with self-service options.”
Deamer says they like to “bake” their ideas just enough to get a valid taste test, then based on people’s feedback, they may change the “recipe.” This approach led to another surprise concerning the credit union’s “menu” of self-service options.
America First found that some consumers’ reaction to its initial offering of extensive ranges of service was to request that it be narrowed and simplified.
“They said they didn’t need all the bells and whistles,” Deamer explains. This led to some rapid revisions of the menu, something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the Innovation Center.
“We would have been slower to react if we were not getting feedback from members visiting the Innovation Center,” Deamer confesses.
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America First promotes the Innovation Center as “part branch, part learning workshop, and part tech playground.” It’s intended not only to “showcase cutting-edge technologies and tools, but to let people experiment with them.
It’s important to emphasize that the Innovation Center is a fully-functioning branch. Members can make withdrawals and deposits, apply for loans and other services, meet with experts to discuss their financial situation — anything else you can do at a traditional branch. “You’ll just be doing all of that in a whole new way,” the credit union explains.
Part of the experience involves an element of showmanship. There’s an element of fun to the center that is atypical of most retail banking branches. Given its location at a retail and entertainment center, the space makes a good venue for events. For instance, the Innovation Center has hosted an Xbox tournament, appearances by players from the Utah Jazz, and events with the state’s governor.
Staffers are called “crew members” — trained as universal bankers. Crew members don’t have sales goals that employees in other branches have. That’s because the primary purpose of the Innovation Center is obtaining feedback on new ideas; crew members’ top priority is conducting consumer surveys. They are highly trained to discuss the range of services available at America First, as well, and have been hired from high-volume service retailers. Among recruits have been veteran fast-food shift supervisors and a concierge from a high-end retailer.
The Lab: Behind-the-Scenes
The other side of operating a lab where consumers conduct real business as well as trying out the latest new ideas is that America First has to be certain that there’s a basic reliability in what consumers see. They are being asked to help with research, not to take risks with their finances.
So, there is a “lab behind the lab,” which the public does not see. Deamer says his office overlooks a testing area where new equipment get uncrated, examined, tested, and tweaked before the center’s experiments get presented publicly.
“My group is responsible for testing new applications,” Deamer explains. “We bake things to the right stage before we put it out in the public lab.”
In a broader sense, that’s why the center exists, to decide what’s ready for wider distribution, or at least broader consumer testing, and what needs to be reconsidered, re-conceptualized, or simply recycled. This saves the credit union money in the long run.
But there are also more immediate benefits. In the two years that the center has been open, it has hosted hundreds of tours for representatives of financial institutions all over the world.
Because of this “financial tourism,” vendors have been willing to provide new equipment at lower cost, or even at no cost, for America First to try out. Says Deamer, “They want to show things off.”