Which are more out of touch with consumers: the actuaries or the techies?

For as long as I’ve been involved with financial services, it has been a truth universally acknowledged that actuaries don’t know anything about consumers.  And, arising from this undeniable fact, that financial services firms led by actuaries (if the idea of actuarial leadership isn’t too much of an oxymoron) are bound to be as out of touch with consumers as it’s possible to be.

But increasingly, I wonder whether this is still true.  No, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that actuaries have acquired any capability for consumer insight, or any other kind of emotional intelligence.  But I am wondering whether there is now a new generation of financial services business leaders, with completely different professional skills, who are even less well equipped to enable their firms to identify and satisfy consumer wants and needs.

Who are these people and what is their skill?  They are the techies, and across countless numbers of fintech start-ups t heir skill is doing brilliantly innovative and complicated things with digital processes that in one way or another will transform people’s financial lives.

If, that is, the people in question a) want their financial lives to be transformed, and b) are able to grapple with what’s required of them to achieve the transformation.

This is not some Luddite yearning for things to stay as they are, or indeed to go back to the way they were in the quill pen era.  But it is a fairly strong suspicion that quite a lot of the very clever new services now on offer are simply too complicated, too demanding and require too much engagement for most of us to enjoy the benefits they offer.

Probably the best example is the whole subject of financial aggregation, a big theme than comes in many flavours.  Once we bring all our finances together and start managing them as a whole, all sorts of good things become possible.  We can “optimise” our financial lives in ways we never could when everything was all over the place.  But will we?  Do we really care?  Are most of us not more likely to stick with the principle of “satisficing” – that great word invented by that great US Economist Herbert Simon to describe the way we’re willing to put time and effort into solving a problem until, and only until, we find a solution that we decide is satisfactory:  as soon as we do, we’ll stop right there, even if further work would have led us to even better solutions.

Techies have an infinite capacity to engage with technology, just as actuaries have an infinite capacity to engage with financial systems.  These exceptional levels of engagement are what make these people important, special and valuable.  But when it comes to designing and developing things intended for ordinary, unengaged consumers, they’re also what makes them very dangerous.  .

Hmm. Have I been wrong about the power of words for all these years?

As a writer, I’ve never felt too much doubt about the power of words over the years.  Of course you have to choose the right words, and specifically the words that will convey what you want to convey to your intended readers, which isn’t easy.  But if you can do that, it’s always seemed to me, words won’t let you (or your readers) down.

However, I have in front of me a document which does rather challenge this assumption.  It’s a 48-page A5 booklet from the guidance service PensionWise titled “Your pension:  it’s time to choose” , and one of its intended pre-retirement age readers is in fact me.

And I can’t get any sense out of it at all.  In fact, I can’t be bothered to read beyond about page 8 or so.

This is partly because the writing style is very boring – flat, dull, colourless, utterly lacking in life.  But it’s more for another reason:  it’s just words. (Well, and a few numbers.)  There’s one font and, as far as I can see, three point sizes, and apart from some tinted text panels and tables that’s all there is for 48 pages.  No graphics, no pictures, no graphs or charts, no signposts (except the front cover, which does literally show a picture of a signpost) and obviously as a printed booklet no video, audio or music.

What I’ve discovered is that today, you just can’t communicate a subject as detailed, lengthy and boring as this when the only tools in your communications toolbox are one font, three point sizes, some tinted panels and something between 15 and 20,000 words.  Yes, the subject is important, and yes it’s of personal interest.  But, even so, it’s just too boring.

And if I’m saying that, as an avid reader and as someone whose understanding of pensions (though pitiful by expert standards) is at least ten times better than average, then so are an awful lot of other people.

So, note to self:  you just can’t communicate with nothing but words any more.  Which, a million or so words into this blog, must be a worry.