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headshot of Joe Ranft
Product Hero is our bi-weekly series to highlight outstanding members of the product management community. These industry leaders share tips on processes, team building, how to be a better product manager, and who they are outside of their careers. This week our product hero is Joe Ranft, Co-founder of Cinch Financial.

Chris: I’m lucky to be here with Joe Ranft. Thanks for joining me Joe.

Joe: Hi, thanks for having me.

Chris: Could you tell me more about your role at Cinch and how you got there?

Joe: I’m one of the co-founders of Cinch Financial. I came to product management from a design and UX background. My entry in was from print design, mainly layout and typography. When I was a grad student at the University of Iowa I started making websites when the web was just getting started.

At that time, it was more about teaching yourself HTML. I could apply a lot of my background in print design from things like typography to interactive web design: knowing about proportions and spacing, and having a minimal aesthetic.

Once I graduated I actually started my career as a high school English teacher, but I had been making websites on the weekends and at night during my free time. I was making more money doing that than I was teaching, and I enjoyed it more.

I moved on to being a web producer for a broker in a small stock brokerage in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s how I ended up in financial services. They wanted a website, but they needed more than that. My job was to learn what the company did, what the customers wanted, and build the features they needed based on those learnings.

That’s where I started to learn more about customer-centered design. I was given a lot of freedom and their only goal was to have a professional web presence. I had access to their customers, their brokers, and whoever I wanted to talk to. Prior to the internet, brokers were really the only source of information for these customers. Once the internet came along, they could get stock prices, they could get their balances. They could get all that on demand. They didn’t need to call their broker anymore. The broker had to be someone who added value in other ways.

Then I worked for a startup as an information architect making sitemaps and doing wireframes. My next step was being recruited by Fidelity Investments to run the design team. I directed the design team that designed the online trading, investment research, account opening, everything Fidelity customers did after logging in. I worked on their 401(k) platform, so heavy financial services stuff. That’s where I got most of my financial services experience. Fidelity is dedicated to usability. I loved the high tech usability lab, being able to test with customers. I liked testing designs with them, but I also just liked meeting them and talking to them about how they use their account, why were they investing at Fidelity, what were they saving for? I was always interested in the goals and needs that people had rather than whether or not the screen was usable.

Chris: Tell us more about Cinch Financial: How did it start and what problems do you solve for your customers?

Joe: Our financial lives are impossible to understand and that causes stress. We created Cinch to improve your financial well-being. We give you an always-on, ever-loyal AI-powered expert for your everyday financial life.

The way we do that is by learning as much as we can about the user, their current financial situation, financial products they use, and how they use them. Our focus is on the biggest monthly bills, like their mortgage and their insurance, their credit cards, phone bill, and later on we want to help with things like student loans and find other ways to trim costs and improve financial fitness. It’s like a personal CFO for regular people, but one that’s far smarter than a human, because no human can keep all of this detail in their head to make the best decision.

Chris: What’s your relationship like with your customers? How do you communicate with them?

Joe: Finances are unnecessarily complicated, so our goal is to just be conversational and friendly. I think that’s something people have noticed in our line of products. We’ve done tons of interviews with people on how they make financial decisions. They tend to either have a trusted family member or they have a friend who knows about this stuff and they go to them. They really don’t find what they research online to be very useful because it’s written by lawyers basically.

Chris: How do you get feedback from customers to know what to build next?

Joe: When we’re building the product we do a lot of user interviews before we start the design work. We do one to two hour interviews with users and that helps us define what information people need.

We have one product where we were telling people to snap a picture of a monthly bill and we would let them know if they should change it. That was sort of a test where we realized people really just don’t want to shop around. They do want advice. What we learned translated into working on a brand new product. I like, but I also like to be sitting next to the user to be able to ask them questions, which I find harder with some of the online testing methods. I’m still a big fan of traditional user testing where you recruit users, bring them in, watch them use the product, and ask them questions about what they’re thinking as they’re using it.

You see their faces. You can tell when they’re confused. You can see especially now in testing phone design, or mobile designs, people try to tap on things that don’t work. I think you really have to watch, and with something like user testing it’s harder to tell what their feelings are. That’s the old fashioned way: bring them in.

I’m still a big fan of traditional user testing where you recruit users, bring them in, watch them use the product, and ask them questions about what they’re thinking as they’re using it.

Joe Ranft

Co-founder of Cinch Financial

Chris: It sounds like you have a good relationship with your users.

Joe: Yeah, and a lot of the people we’re using, since we’ve always done user interviews, whenever we’re interested in … oh, say auto insurance, we just recruit people and talk to them about how do you shop for you auto insurance? Let us look at your bill. Let’s see if we can actually find you something better. We probably have 100 people we’ve talked to and we will bring those people back sometimes to help us with a new product.

Chris: How will you measure success with your future product?

Joe: We’re 100% convinced that software will consume this huge problem people have with their financial lives. Mint doesn’t fix anything – just aggregation and visualization, and a bunch of ads. So for us, persistent usage and engagement is the key.

Chris: What do you think is next in financial services relating to the product management space?

Joe: I think we’re doing it at Cinch. The application of the latest AI advances will be huge. But it is incredibly hard because there’s no datasets you can trust to build the brain, and behavior plays such an important role. It isn’t like recommending music or movies based on past decisions. Most people make the wrong financial decisions.

The robo-advisors are growing quickly. Companies like Wealthfront and Personal Capital and Betterment. They’re starting to take market share from companies like Fidelity, Charles Schwab, and eTrade.  But there’s lots of competition because their investment algorithms are basically public domain and you can stand up a basic one pretty quickly.  There’s lots of pricing pressure.

The current free financial sites and apps are based on selling clicks, like a lot of referral-based businesses. Basically, the user is the product that is being sold to financial advertisers. I see that getting harder and harder to do, especially as the government agencies like the CFPB get involved and want more transparency in financial services.  Lots of those sites don’t look like ad tables, but that’s basically what they are. And most people know not to click on those links.

Now I think people almost trust machines more than they trust individuals.

Joe Ranft

Co-founder of Cinch Financial

Chris: What risks are involved with mixing money and technology?

Joe: One issue is around privacy and security. Just something that I noticed from watching users is especially younger users, is they’re very trusting of technology. Maybe too much so.

I think it’s just because they grew up with it. There are companies like Credit Karma which tracks your credit score with something like 40 million users. There’s not a barrier for younger people to hand over very personal information like credit reports. If we were launching a product for people in their 40s and 50s, I think security would be a higher concern. Our products are totally secure so it doesn’t matter, but there is a lot of trust that has to be built and demonstrated.

I think it’s a challenge in the industry in the opposite way. I think it was an industry that was built on personal relationships and trust, so somebody would have an insurance agent and they trusted that person. Or they had a banker or a mortgage agent. It used to be that people trusted other people who were the experts. Now I think people almost trust machines more than they trust individuals.

We get so much information from machines, like from Google and from Wikipedia and other sources that aren’t backed by people. I think it’s harder now to build a business based on personal trust. I think it’s easier for people to trust a business built on technology.

So now if you want to put a human in the decision making role, they have to be in the middle. There’s these hybrid models where you’re using technology for part of the decision and then you’re getting help from a human. There’s Lola Travel, they’re a travel app and they actually have travel agents, but they also use a lot of technology. It was built by Paul English who also started Kayak, which is completely technology based. No humans at all.

It’s interesting to me that now that he created this new hybrid model with Lola Travel where it’s like I’m going to get help from really smart robots and really smart humans. Maybe that’s the best combination.

You have to get people to trust the humans more than they trust the robots.

As a user experience designer or a product person, you have to think of how you can help people when their attention span for what you want to do is two seconds.

Joe Ranft

Co-founder of Cinch Financial

Chris: What do you think is going to be next in terms of technology for user experience?

Joe: Like I mentioned, I do think that more and more people are trusting technology to help them with decision making, so I really think artificial intelligence is just going to become a more important part of our lives. I think that we’re moving from desktop to the phone and wearables. I think we’re moving into a time where we’re going to get information in super small pieces.

As a user experience designer or a product person, you have to think of how you can help people when their attention span for what you want to do is two seconds. I think you have these micro-moments with people. That’s going to be the challenge – giving people a meaningful experience when you only have these tiny moments in which to do it. People are giving us less and less of their time.

I think about Snapchat for example. The way you consume the news on Snapchat is so different than reading a newspaper used to be.

You’re just watching these 10 second videos one after another. They’re never very long. It’s a great visual way to share information, but also very passive. Major League Baseball has a great Snapchat channel. It’s a nice way to catch up on the previous day by just passively watching these videos of what happened. I think brands and companies are going to have to contend with this shorter attention span of the consumer.

Chris: What do you think would be one skill that someone in product management should know, whether it be a soft skill or a hard skill?

Joe: I think the most important is to listen to users, but really just watch. Watch and listen to users as they use your product. Then they’ll tell you what you need to do with it. I’m a big fan of Steve Krug who wrote Don’t Make Me Think. He said something like, “if you want to make your product better, just watch somebody use it.”

I think sometimes if you’re managing a lot of work, you’re managing iterations and tech teams and you’re trying to meet deadlines, sometimes you lose track of who you’re actually trying to help and what their real problems are.

Chris: What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?

Joe: Never make career decisions based on money. I don’t know who told me that, but it’s always been true.

Chris: What are some things that you like to do when you’re not at Cinch?

Joe: Let’s see. I just did was this crazy 200 mile relay race called a Ragnar. This one was Reach the Beach up in New Hampshire.

That was fun. I like running. I’ve also done marathons and other races. I have twin boys so they keep me busy. I’m sort of obsessed with the election right now. I’m a big Red Sox fan so I have season tickets. I’m looking forward to going to see a few playoff games. I grew up in Chicago so I have tickets for World Series Game One and I hope it’s Red Sox vs Cubs. Other than that, mainly my family keeps me busy.

I do have a side project that I’m working on with a friend to make a case for the new iPhone that has a headphone adapter built into the case. It will make your iPhone 7 just like an iPhone 6. We have a prototype that we’re working through. He’s a friend of mine who is a product designer and he has a 3D printer and a whole fabrication lab. We’re pretty close. We just have to figure out the electronics. That might be a Kickstarter project in the next month or so for me.

Chris: What’s the one quality you like most about yourself?

Joe: I try to be funny. I try to be positive generally. I think people don’t bring a sense of humor to work enough. I try to do that.

Chris: Tell me a little bit about your morning ritual. What’s the one thing you do everyday that sets the tone for the day?

Joe: I really like coffee, but not like Keurig machine coffee. I make my own pour-over. I like to experiment with different coffee beans that I get throughout the city and grind them fresh. It’s just part of my routine here at the office. First thing I do when I get in is make a nice fussy cup of coffee. Then I read the news before I open my email.

One rule I have is this: if I’m eating at my desk or I’m having that first cup of coffee, I don’t do work. That’s where I try and look outward and see what’s going on in the world and read my Flipboard or my Feedly RSS reader.

Chris: Well, thank you Joe. Really appreciate your time. Take care and thanks for being a product hero.

Interview notes:

  • One skill that every product manager should master: watching and listening to users to influence future product decisions. As Joe says: “they’ll tell you what you need to do with it.”
  • Joe’s predictions for technology and user experience: Capturing the user’s attention in micro-moments. Solving the challenge of how to deliver meaningful content in a short, snackable form.
  • Connect with Joe on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.