Capital One’s acquisition of Adaptive Path shouldn’t be news

Last week’s announcement by Adaptive Path that they have been acquired by Capital One sent, if not shockwaves, certainly large ripples through the tech press. Wired said it was the “death rattle of the Web 2.0 era”, Techcrunch linked it to Capital One’s launch of their new mobile wallet app. Kerry Bodine wrote that “her head just exploded”, but then went on to write some very smart thoughts about it. Who knew exploding heads could be so thoughtful?

The general gist of the reactions echoed Jesse James Garrett’s own in their announcement post: “I know, weird, right?” But the acquisition is no weirder than Marc Newson joining Apple.

Banks are, of course, in the money business, but their retail sector is the experience business. When was the last time you actually bothered to read, let alone respond to, one of those formal letters from your bank informing you of a change of interest rate or a change to their terms and conditions? I’m guessing it’s probably about as often as you thoroughly read through the iTunes Store terms and conditions the last time you updated. Even if you did read it, your ability to react to a rise in interest rates or higher fees is minimal.

Now think about the last time you were annoyed by poor customer service, a lousy app, a clunky website, unfair fees, a huge queue in your local branch. I’m betting is was more recently and is much more burnt into your soul than the interest rates.

You can’t hold your bank account in your hand and examine its build quality like an iPhone or a suit before you buy it. The quality of the bank’s service to you is made up of all your experiences and interactions with different touchpoints and, crucially, whether they all seamlessly fit together or not. Those experiences form a relationship that builds up over time. Like any relationship, the odd bad experience might be forgiven, but a continuous stream of bad experiences eventually leads to the point where the pain of leaving is less than the pain of staying.

Now imagine if a bank spent as much time crafting the joins between customer experiences as Jony Ive does ensuring the seam between the iPhone touchscreen glass and the milled aluminium housing is as invisible as possible. Isn’t it obvious that this is exactly what all banks should be attempting to do? Acquiring Adaptive Path is only weird in that it has only happened now and not 10 years ago.

The banking press got in on the act with American Banker (rhymes with…) going for the thoughtless headline, “Capital One Seeks Creative Spark with Purchase of Design Firm”. That article quoted Jacob Jegher, a research director at Celent with this:

“When the paint starts to peel on the walls of the branch and the carpet starts to fray and the glass is scratched, what happens? It gets renovated. Same can be said for digital banking.”

True to financial analyst form, this exactly misses the point.

UX & service designers aren’t painters and decorators there to make things look glossy while the money guys get on with the serious business of turning some numbers into bigger numbers. Focusing on the experience, means thinking hard about how best to deliver that experience. If it were easy, customers would love their banks like they love their iPhones. Instead they love their banks like they love multiple root canals. The process of re-thinking the experience will and should lead to re-thinking Capital One’s internal organisation and culture. (Though, by the sound of Jesse’s post, they already have a culture ready for this).

My heartfelt congratulations to Adaptive Path. I don’t begrudge anyone who has spent years building up a successful business selling what they have created and taking on a new direction. As Lou Rosenfeld said, “If you want to risk selling out, run a conventional agency.”

My hope is that with Adaptive Path on board at Capital One, their ambition is to do to the banking sector what Apple did to the mobile phone.

[Update: Russ Unger pointed out to me that this is really big news and everyone should know about it, which it is of course. The title is a little clickbait-esque)]