Miranda Hill's vision for a high-tech financial services laboratory took shape years ago in a small computer room.
“We found a tiny space — basically a server room — where we could at least get a good start,” said Hill, who became director of Wells Fargo Digital Labs six years ago.
Today, her vision has turned into one of the world’s most advanced digital banking labs — the hub for developing and showcasing some of the latest in financial services technology.
Originally founded nearly a decade ago as an online-only “space,” the Digital Labs team recently moved into its third and largest physical location — a nearly 1,700-square-foot facility in San Francisco equipped with an array of systems, including virtual reality headsets, high-definition touch screens, and video conferencing. The days of having a few desktops in a server room are a distant memory, Hill said.
“We didn’t have anything like this six years ago,” she said. “But we knew we needed a place to showcase our demos for customers, executives, and the team member population. You can only do so many PowerPoint presentations. But by creating demos for a smartphone or tablet, we can provide an immersive experience that is much more effective.”
The lab has attracted national attention from its modest beginnings. Through tours, industry presentations, leadership conferences, and community events, the labs team has directly reached more than 10,000 people, Hill said. She estimated that number doubles when including internal and external media coverage.
It has also helped roll out a gallery of popular tech-based features, including Wells Fargo Mobile Banking App; SurePay person-to-person digital pay service; real-time online account activity alerts; and Wells Fargo Wallet, the company’s entry in the mobile wallet space.
The Digital Labs team — which includes nearly a dozen developers, engineers, strategy consultants, and technical project managers — expects the new facility will allow them to develop more products through its test-kitchen approach, reach more people through larger-scale demos, and provide a bigger stage to showcase Wells Fargo’s emerging technologies.
"A good thing for banking customers"
Such success has put Wells Fargo on the map as a pioneer in the digital laboratory space, said industry analyst Dan Latimore of Celent, one of the industry’s leading research and consulting firms. According to a Celent study, there are now at least a dozen such labs in the world — and the number is growing fast.
“Wells Fargo was one of the first banks to get a lab up and running,” said Latimore, senior vice president of Celent. “Since then, a number of banks around the world have established labs and started investing in innovation in other ways as well. It’s something they’ve been pushed to do by the fintech competition, and ultimately it is going to be a good thing for banking customers.”
Having a practical customer-oriented approach to its lab work is an area where Wells Fargo has stood out from the pack, said Mark Schwanhausser, director of Omnichannel Financial Services for Javelin Strategy & Research, a leading financial technology research & advisory firm. He commended the lab’s test-kitchen approach involving customers and team members in beta testing and proving new tech-based services.
“It shows Wells is not a bank that is standing still; that it is aware things are changing, and it is really trying to calibrate these technology developments to what customers want and need,” Schwanhausser said. “It is also significant that, being in the heart of Silicon Valley, the company is committed to innovate — while doing it in a very conservative industry, where regulations and security and other factors involving money are extremely important to people.”
Such positive feedback has encouraged the company as it has invested through the years to grow the lab, ultimately unveiling its newly expanded site this month, said Jim Smith, head of Wells Fargo Virtual Channels.
“From its inception, our digital lab strategy has received an exceptional response from the industry, our customers, and our team members,” he said. “This expanded space will give us an even bigger stage to showcase our rapidly growing portfolio of product innovation.”
Developers are already working on next-generation financial services technology integrating things like virtual reality, social media, biometrics, and GPS-based systems into customer services, Hill said. Ultimately, she wants to have lab locations across the company to tap all the creativity that is out there.
“I hope to provide more team members with a front-row seat to innovation,” she said. “It is critical for the lab to continually push the boundaries on the future of personal finance and money management. The more we motivate team members to reimagine experiences, the more successful we’ll be as an organization in redefining the future of banking.”