Rethinking the 401k Experience

The EY Intuitive team worked with a leading retirement-planning company to develop a new user-experience framework that would help employees visualize their 401k savings and better understand their retirement future.

Key components:
Identity design,
Interaction design,
Journey Mapping,
User Research

How can we help employees achieve their retirement goals?

Spoiler alert: The current state of retirement in the United States is bleak. According to USNews & World Report, personal debt is rising tremendously, people are living far longer than expected, and many workers are downright awful at saving money.

In this tough environment we needed to help employees visualize the importance of saving early in order to improve their retirement future. Our client worked with us to develop a better way to support employers and financial advisors in assisting employees with retirement planning.

Initial Research

First, we studied the client’s existing 401K-management experience. We observed that employees weren’t saving enough to achieve their retirement goals but didn’t know how they could remedy this problem. We found three key areas for improvement that revolved around awareness, understanding and action.

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Hit the Ground Sketching

With these research themes in mind, the design team landed on “gradual engagement” as a key concept. We understood that most employees log in, check their current balances and savings rate and then log out, so we wanted to increase the odds of engaging users by offering concise learning videos, social comparisons against peer leaders and easy goal creation.

One core idea that wasn’t working in our sketches was compound interest. We wanted to make it clear that if people start saving money for retirement at 25, they will be far better off at retirement than if they had tried playing catch-up in their 30s or 40s. Since compound interest is an incredibly important concept, our original Excel graph visual needed some love.

After going back to the whiteboard, we drew inspiration from the “golden ratio spiral.” It resonated with us as not only a design theme, but also a visualization tool for compound interest. It works well because most people focus in on the big bold block on the left—but that’s just one block, and it could have never been there without the early savings put forth in the small blocks.

Golden Lifecycle

We also used that golden-ratio-spiral visualization to break up each piece of retirement into phases: Set Up, Early Career, Mid-Career, Retirement Preparation, and the big shebang, Retirement. Finally, that same concept ended up as our visual framework, an important necessity for multiple user types that need to interact together.

A consistent user-interface framework is a vital component when designing for different types of users.
A consistent user-interface framework is a vital component when designing for different types of users.

Golden Work

The employee summary dashboard needed to have low content density so as to not overwhelm the user, so we designed the screen to answer one simple question: “Are you on-track or off-track for retirement?” All other financial information builds in the spiral to answer that question.

The employer view and financial-advisor view follow the same framework, but solve for different problems. When employers log in, their primary focus is to check on upcoming tasks and events; therefore, this information is displayed prominently. Whereas the financial-advisor view shows how employers are helping employees to succeed, hence creating a system of users working together.



Getting users onto their retirement-planning site in the first place is the biggest hurdle to setting up retirement accounts, so making the onboarding process simple and smart can do wonders. Our approach was to ask employees to set a savings rate, in addition to supplying a minimal amount of personal information. By simplifying the onboarding experience, we encourage users to set up a 401k account.

Upfront Education Saves the Day

We collaborated with many finance professionals on this project, but too many stakeholders vetting our design work became problematic. To expect disparate stakeholders to understand the purpose of a design concept versus a wireframe versus an aesthetic was unrealistic. What we did to rectify this situation was create a glossary defining all of the UX terms our team might take for granted, as well as a feedback form to consolidate information and reduce noise.

Going Forward

With the new user-experience framework, employees can better visualize their 401k savings and understand their retirement future. The lessons we learned on this research and strategy initiative became the cornerstone for future engagements with the client. In subsequent sprints, we continued to tackle complex problems with the same emphasis on user education.