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Quietroom at twenty

Co-founder Vincent Franklin reflects on what’s changed in 20 years of communications about pensions, investment and insurance.

When Quietroom opened its doors, 20 years ago, no one wanted to talk to two men in flowery shirts who didn’t come from a big finance company. Nobody cared about language or research. No one had even heard of user experience, and apps and dashboards were as fanciful as lightsabers and teleporters – and maybe dashboards still are. Back then, it was all about producing material and not enough about changing behaviours. Brand was king. And brand meant pantone references, photography and the logo in the right place. As long as a pension booklet had a photo of glamorous 50-somethings laughing next to faded beach huts or Belgian chocolate shops, it was shipped off to members, via the lawyers. Job done.

While the people who work in pensions, investment and insurance still tell us that these subjects are boring (strangely self-deprecating for an industry whose purpose is to help people throw money through time to their future self) a lot has changed in the last two decades. In a really good way.

Firstly, people now care about the words we use. ‘Not factually incorrect’ is no longer considered the finish line. We no longer struggle to persuade people to use shorter sentences, to offer help not assistance and to talk about the member not the scheme. The industry has even agreed to say less – telling people what they need, not everything it knows. Working on the Simpler Annual Statement a couple of years ago, we managed to get pensions people to shrink the typical 15 or 16 pages of impenetrable data down to just 2 sides of helpful information. That would have been a miracle when we started – when Tony Blair was Prime Minister and Pop Idol pulled in millions.

But there are bigger changes too. Clients no longer brief us based on what they suspect their end users need. Well, not many of them do. Speaking at the PLSA annual conference a few years ago, we showed interviews of people we’d filmed on the street, trying to explain what they thought the industry meant by drawdown, bonds, gilts and annuities. Delegates were amazed at the gulf between what these people knew and what they thought they knew. We brought ordinary people into the room, and it was a revelation. It wouldn’t be today. We now regularly get to speak to members and customers about what they need, what they know, what they don’t know and what they care about. Today, we carry out user research to get projects kicked off , not just signed off. When it comes to communication, the brand is dead and the user is king.

We’ve come to realise that the success or failure of the stuff we send out or put on screens isn’t dependent on whether people can understand it or not, but on whether it helps them do stuff or not. People don’t open our apps or visit our sites to catch up on the latest financial gossip. They don’t want us to be Netflix. They go there because they need to do something. Our job is to make them feel in control and to get them to where they need to go as quickly as possible (unless we want to slow them down in case they do something they might regret). We used to make videos to help people fill in the tricky forms, now we just make better forms. And that means constantly improving. No job should ever be truly signed off. Especially when we’re no longer printing 20,000 copies in full colour and stuffing them in envelopes. We’re online and ready for the next iteration. We make things better, get people using it, see what’s still tripping them up. Then we fix it. We’re getting nimbler. But we can, as my maths teacher, Mr. Eveleigh used to say, do better

And we will get better. Because we have hot competition now. No one was doing what we did when we first darkened the FCA’s doors. We’re now pitching against good companies with smart people doing great things. There’s now a communication industry within the world of pensions, investment and insurance. We’re keeping each other on our toes and this can only be a good thing.

What keeps old men like me on our toes is the brilliant people who’ve chosen to join our gang. Clients used to come to us because we could help them write. They now come to us because we can help them change. We’re still independent and we’re powered by independent thinkers. There’s no company line. As long as people speak with intelligence, integrity and a desire to make things better, we want to hear from them.

This article originally appeared in Professional Pensions.