Innovation & Design

IPC's Tools of the Stock Trade

In the high-pressure environment of the trading floor, three things matter: information, communication, and speed. IPC Information Systems has managed to become a leading provider of trading floor communications systems, with some 100,000 traders at Merrill Lynch (MER), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), and other financial houses using its systems to talk to clients and make trades. (Think of the company as the Bloomberg of communication.)

But by late 2004, IPC had a problem. Actually it had several. The trading turret it had on the market couldn't support some of the features and applications that the market was demanding, and the machine's display was limited and confusing. It needed a redesign. Traders are notoriously difficult to design products for.

For efficiency's sake, they tend to develop their own quick keys and shortcuts, and any new system that disrupts those habits or requires them to invest time in training is a hard sell. It's a group with high performance expectations; and because they are so busy and trading floors are tightly controlled places, it's not easy to do the necessary user research.

FROM SCRATCH. "The challenge of IPC is that they are so boxed in by the user's behaviors that it is almost impossible to innovate," says Robert Fabricant, the creative director of Frog Design in New York, which worked with the company on the project.

All of which makes the new turret, which IPC is unveiling on Mar. 15, an impressive accomplishment. "We decided to go forth with a blank sheet of paper," says Michael Speranza, IPC's vice-president for product management. "We didn't want to carry forward preconceived notions of what the products should do. The starting point was what the consumers wanted."

From the start, the design team kept two products in mind: the Blackberry (RIMM) and the Bloomberg terminal, both ubiquitous in the world of financial services. The Bloomberg represented incredible efficiency. "Traders can navigate it quickly," says Fabricant. "But they depend on short codes and compound key commands. It's back to DOS. There's nothing intuitive about it." Meanwhile, the Blackberry was easy to learn and easy to use. IPC wanted its new turret to be both efficient and intuitive.

SOMETHING BORROWED. Trading-information systems like Bloomberg have long used color to distinguish between types of information or actions, so introducing color to the communications software was easy. The designers focused on visual semantics -- using color, light, and behavior to convey information such as the priority of an incoming call or how long someone had been on hold.

They also borrowed conventions for storing and sorting data -- such as alphabetized contacts -- and other features from consumer electronics. "Cell phones tell you quickly that you missed a call and give you the option to call the person right back," says Speranza. "We wanted to embed those features in the new turret."

Although access to actual trading floors was limited, the design team was able to do some observational research followed by user testing in IPC's lab, where traders tested physical and virtual prototypes. Over 15 months, IPC was able to get 300 to 400 traders into the lab, and they learned some surprising things.

MY MACHINE. For instance, with the sleeker form factor of the new model, all of the buttons had to shrink a bit, including the release button that disconnects a phone call. But traders tend to hit the release button with the top of the telephone handset rather than with a finger, and they wanted the larger button back.

"Traders also didn't want the product to be too flashy," says Fabricant. "But it did have to feel like a precision instrument." So the team kept the black of the previous design (no brushed aluminum like the Bloomberg), but gave it a shinier surface like the PS2 so that it would look more like a machine and less like a piece of molded plastic. They sharpened the edges and upgraded to screens capable of sharp, crisp colors.

"Traders have such loyalty to their Blackberries and Bloomberg terminals. Part of our goal was to create a stronger sense of emotional value in the turret -- to get them to see it as more than just a utility," says Fabricant.

THE FITTEST. The team did that through industrial design, making the form lighter and adding a curve that visually connected it to the screens above it. "One of the key innovations was introducing higher quality TFT screens," Fabricant adds. "It's the first turret that will have the same screen quality as the Bloomberg display above it."

The turret will be installed in an asset management firm in London this month, and more broadly come June. The true test of the redesign will be its acceptance on trading floors. As Speranza says, "it's a community that likes evolution more than revolution." And the turret is an example of very positive evolution.

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