By Wendy Aarons-Corman
The user experience concept has become the catchphrase of the day, but when I hear it I can't help but remember the days of "knowledge management." The terminology and the idea of knowledge management was so hot some 10-plus years ago, insurers were creating initiatives that included a new resource called the "knowledge management expert."
Who could argue with the obvious value of having more information at your fingertips for better management, not to mention the opportunities for improved customer service? While the knowledge management fad eventually dissipated and few projects made it to the production stage, knowledge management did give birth to the concept of data warehousing which has gained real traction in the insurance market.
I don't expect the user experience fad to suffer the same fate as knowledge management. Better access to data to make better decisions was an abstract idea that required a visionary to appreciate -- and one who was willing to take a risk.
User experience is quite a different story. It is a concept that is being driven more by market demand and customer, agent/broker and employee expectations. Easy access to the Web and the rapid introduction of mobile devices is creating a whole new playing field for what constitutes a competitive advantage -- that is, the optimal user experience -- one that is quick, easy and informative.
User demand has increased, prompting insurers to begin to take a serious look at how functionality and data are being delivered. For the past decade, insurers have been focusing their information technology efforts and budgets toward cleaning up back-end legacy systems. Maintenance costs for disparate systems and inflexible, out-of-date technology have demanded insurers' attention in the need to modernize their operations. Some are rewriting or creating proprietary systems, while others are looking to software providers for modern solutions.
Regardless of the approach to the clean-up and modernization effort, with each back-end system comes a different front-end user experience. The result? Replication of the back-end silo problem on the front-end. Also, rarely taken into account are new user expectations and requirements resulting from growing use of social media and Internet-based commerce.
Not only is the need and demand for the optimal user experience here to stay, it is only going to get more complex to support. While insurers are heavily focused on serving their existing distribution channels, namely agents and consumers, distribution channels are going to expand with new types of buyers and sellers of insurance, and all those servicing them. Insurers need to plan for how to deliver the user experience to all distribution channels -- even those they may not yet know about.
What if there is a business partner who wants to sell the insurer's products online? What if a third-party administrator needs access to policy information in order to manage the claim? What will the policyholder expect from the customer service representative when they call in to manage their policy or sign-on to self-manage? These channels or users will each have their own expectations, demands and requirements.
It's not as simple as just providing access to the back-office systems through a myriad of devices. A lot of heavy processing will be done via the Web or with devices with larger screen real estate, but there is a rapidly growing demand for mobile device access.
Today it's the smartphone and iPad, but who knows what the next device will be. Each adds another level of complexity to the optimum user experience challenge with each device having its own operating system and default browser.
Add different languages and it gets worse. All of these criteria need to be taken into consideration, along with the obvious needs for functionality, data access, security and ease-of-use. Oh, and let's not forget that user requirements, technology, functionality and processes constantly change. Not only do insurers need to get the user experience right for all the different types of users and their respective needs, but the insurer needs to be able to keep up with the changing requirements. And, we thought managing the back-end systems was a challenge!
So, where should an insurer start in order to successfully define, develop and deliver an effective, efficient and customizable user experience? How does an insurer manage their existing distribution channels and plan for the future ones?
the Big Picture: Strategy
Rather than react to the latest mobile device with yet another front-end application, insurers should stop, take a breath, and define an overall strategy for delivering the optimal user experience -- regardless of the user or device.
While the insurer cannot dependably predict the future and know all that will transpire, they can expect that distribution channels will only get wider and deeper through partnerships, acquisitions and servicing. And, technology will continue to evolve and be adopted at a continuously faster rate. If insurers don't get a good strategy in place now, it's only going to make the optimal user experience an even bigger challenge down the road.
From a technological standpoint, the information technology team needs to include the optimal user experience strategy into the technology architecture. The discussions and subsequent decisions should take into account an understanding of where data should live, how rules are invoked on the user experience and the back-end, and what components are best suited for delivering to all of the existing and potential users.
Without this consideration, information technology departments will find themselves in a position where the formula to support the business becomes complex. Consider the multiple variables that are now in play-- users, devices, browsers and potentially languages. While a one-off solution may address an immediate need, a lot of one-off solutions don't make for an agile environment that can respond to changes in requirements, new users or new processes. Didn't we learn this lesson with back-end systems? Is history destined to repeat itself on the front-end?
Insurer information technology departments might consider investigating user experience platform technologies to learn their potential and how they might help in supporting both the immediate and long-term distribution and user needs. They may find UXPs a worthy addition to the architecture and a way to avoid the creation of front-end silos.
UXPs are able to handle the varied delivery by understanding who the user is, what they need, what device they are using, what browser is employed and what language is required. In addition, UXPs support all the technology now available to optimize the user experience and will support new technologies as they arise. A good UPX handles the delivery and the quality of the user experience, while the insurer can focus on the insurance functionality and process. They are typically tool-based, offering the insurer self-sufficiency and the ability to make and deliver continuous changes to the user experience.
UXP technologies are only beginning to gain traction in North America, while Europe has been aggressively leveraging UXPs for several years. But, the North American market can learn a lot from the Europeans and their success in leveraging the Web and mobile to support their business models.
Even with the best technologies and UXPs, the insurer still needs to know its users, along with their respective needs and expectations -- whether the user is the insurance buyer, employee, agent/broker or third party. And, knowing the users and delivering a quality experience is not a one-time event. It's an ongoing process that needs to be managed through feedback mechanisms which might include talking to the users on a regular basis, surveying to gauge the quality of the experience, and getting just-in-time feedback as they navigate through the experience.
Focus groups offer another method, but keeping the group engaged and on target can be a challenge. Rather than employing the traditional approach of gathering people by spending dollars and time to travel, insurers can host Web-based meetings. When done well, these can be extremely effective, not to mention cost and time efficient. Offering incentives to attendees, while minimizing their time commitment, also encourages regular participation.
The key to long-term user experience success is acting on the user feedback and making a commitment to continual improvement. Insurers that continue to keep tabs on their users' needs, and just as importantly, remain agile in delivering changes, will be successful in keeping user experiences at peak performance and users happy.
Satisfying agents/brokers, customers and employees translates into successful and mutually beneficial relationships, as well as market growth. So, like it or not, the need to deliver an optimal user experience is here to stay. While today it may offer a competitive advantage, the ability to continuously deliver the optimal user experience will quickly become the cost of doing business. The sooner insurers get started on the strategy, get to know the users, and get educated on UXP technologies, the better prepared they will be.
WENDY AARONS-CORMAN is president of edge IPK Inc.
June 1, 2012
Copyright 2012© LRP Publications