Written by Stu Jackson on 13 minutes read

The mythical execution trader


To design a software product – any software product, in any industry – it’s essential to know and understand the person for whom you’re designing.

To do this – as Alan Cooper pointed out as long ago as 1998 in his The Inmates are Running the Asylum – we need to come round to the very useful notion of personas.

There are essentially two types of persona, the explicit and the implicit. Explicit personas are built up via ethnography – for example, by conducting observation exercises, user interviews, and so on. In other words, by doing research, and by documenting your user’s needs and wants.

Implicit personas, on the other hand, come about because, over time, the UX designer has internalised so much ethnographic information that the mental model they hold of a given user is sufficiently rich (or so they believe) that it can itself guide their design decisions without the need for other data.

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about ethnography and how we at Fathom use it as a tool, and about the use of an implicit persona as it applies to fintech; what we might call (with a nod towards Fred Brooks’ seminal work on software engineering) the mythical execution trader, as divined from my own research using ethnographic techniques over the past few years.

Who are these guys?

The press love to demonise execution traders – these are the guys (and gals) that the popular imagination blames for all the vile, reprehensible money gluttony that has caused the world so many vile, reprehensible problems. These are the shadowy figures behind every financial disaster one cares to name. They are poorly understood, but the fact remains that they transact trillions of dollars of financial instruments around the world, every day.

Whatever our conceptions and misconceptions about who they are and what they do however, execution traders are most certainly one thing: dead men walking. Why? Because as soon as AI and machine learning systems, such as those beginning to emerge from Google’s ‘Deep Mind’, become sufficiently mature, the banks will eagerly grasp the opportunity to cut costly salaries and eye-watering bonuses, and consign the role of the execution trader to history.

Of course, we are talking about the future here – but very much the near-future: I’ve heard estimates of anywhere between five and 15 years.

For now, though, endangered species or not, our fintech users in investment banking remain our mythical execution traders. What sort of people are they? How and where do they work? Very importantly, what do they actually do? What kind of things do they need from software? Fathom have been asking such questions for years, because in order to design and build trading software for investment banks, we need to have accurate answers – and we’ve derived those answers from our application of ethnography to the questions.

Ethnography, and why it’s useful

Ethnography – also known as “observational research” and “contextual inquiry” is a UX research technique that emerged from the field of anthropology. In it (at the explicit stage) the researcher studies the beliefs, norms and behaviours of a group or community (a society) by immersing themselves in the world of the subjects they wish to study. So in essence, ethnography is basically just very active observation. “Ethnography is basically just very active observation

Why is it useful? Well, for UX purposes, very active observation is super-useful because, for various and multitudinous reasons, people lie.

IKR, who knew?

They don’t always do this intentionally, of course.

Most times the lie is merely an unrecognised, unwitting dichotomy between what someone says they do and what they actually do. And the only way we can reliably know the difference is through observation, because asking people about their behaviour is not a wholly reliable data-gathering technique. People might deliberately lie, or more likely they will obfuscate, dissemble, exaggerate, mis-remember or simply not be aware that what they are telling you is at odds with what actually happens.

It’s also useful because people have unarticulated needs. Needs that either they are unable to communicate confidently, or even needs they are unaware of having at all. A simple case of not knowing what you don’t know. And again, through observation, it’s possible to reveal these needs which, once you point them out, may seem very obvious. Uncovering such needs requires active, attentive, observation.

So, ethnographic research is useful for exploring new product concepts, unveiling business opportunities and avenues of technological development, for exposing “pain points”, articulating frustrations, and laying behaviour patterns bare: all in order to create and deliver better products.

The Hawthorne Effect

A potential downside of ethnography is known as the Hawthorne effect, or “observational bias”. Put simply: observation alters behaviour. If a person knows they are part of a research study, or are simply being observed in the work that they do, and are conscious of it, they may behave differently to how they normally behave. This is human nature and impossible to eradicate, so researchers must simply accept it and try to take it into account.

The unwritten mantra

At Fathom we are big fans of evidential reasoning and data-driven design, so we have an unwritten mantra (meaning it is implicit in our approach) when it comes to ethnography: don’t look an ethnographic gift-horse in the mouth. What I mean is that we’ll never pass up an opportunity to gather data about users from inside an investment bank. Such opportunities are, after all, not that common: trading floors are very busy, information-sensitive places, and outsiders are rarely welcome. So there is a practical aspect to this in that when any opportunity arises, we take it. There’s also an epistemic element, because we’re a curious bunch (in the best sense of the word), and we never tire of learning new things.

Which brings us back to our (mythical) execution traders. I can tell you, with no specific individual in mind, that execution traders are a very particular bunch. Researching and understanding them and their needs, explicitly, and later modelling them implicitly, is not easy. But it’s not impossible either. And there’s a lot you can learn from negatives, as well as from positives.

Let’s look at this unique group of people in a little more detail. This small overview isn’t meant to be comprehensive – at best it’s a thumbnail sketch of some of the key characteristics that make up our mythical execution trader. But it’s based on sound ethnography.

Characteristics of the execution trader: A brief guide

First, execution traders don’t do “polite” very well – their priority will always be the demands of their clients and colleagues, not those of the well-intentioned UX researcher hovering at their elbow. They have little time for discursive chit-chat. They are almost always stressed and time-poor, and they have one hell of an empathy deficit, and that’s putting it charitably.

Second, they’re just people. They lie, obfuscate, dissemble, exaggerate, and what they tell us they do and want doesn’t always correlate with what they actually do and want. For example, I once sat talking to a trader who told me that it was imperative that she had six screens to study at any one time (a familiar sight on trading floors) but who in fact spent a whole hour watching a tiny part of one screen, and never took her eyes from it apart from glancing at her keyboard from time to time. It seemed to me that she might manage OK with four screens, perhaps even two… perhaps even… one. But the lesson here was that execution traders are what we might call “conservatives” when it comes to “screen real-estate” – need them or not, six or eight screens are the norm, calibrated, personalised, imperative. The screens are perhaps, in a way, a kind of badge of office.

“I once sat on the trading floor with a bond trader who told me that it was imperative that she had six screens to study at any one time…”

Third, these traders can be of all ages. Many are young 20-somethings, but many others are in their forties and fifties. Inevitably, attitudes to technology are equally variable, and it’s no surprise that – in general – we’re more likely to get a positive UX response to innovative solutions from the younger end of the spectrum.

Fourth, such people have a unique approach to the size of fonts and buttons used in software. They like fonts to be as small as possible and buttons to be as big as possible. Which makes sense: in this business buttons are important, fonts less so: consider the result of accidentally pressing a tiny button (what’s known as a “thick-fingered error”) which says TRADE NOW. Potentially ruinous. So: make buttons big.

Fifth, traders favour efficiency over practically anything else (or think they do … eight screens or one?).

A changing persona

I have written much of this post intuitively, based on what I explicitly know. What’s emerged is a tiny profile of the persona of our mythical execution trader: what they want, what they need, what they like and dislike, how they’ll probably react to one innovation or another. If we can understand them – immerse ourselves in their world, as any ethnographic research in the field would – we can, and do, offer them solutions and new ways of thinking.

Looking forward, whatever happens in the next 5 to 15 years, however much institutions cut back on staffing, the human being will never be entirely removed from the trading process. As hinted at earlier, a likely scenario is the replacement of our “execution traders” by “A traders”, but that these in turn will be (as is the case today with human traders) under the direction of a (human) portfolio manager.

“The human being will not be entirely removed from the trading process any time soon.”

And this will call for a revision of the intuitive process. For more ethnography, more insights to help us understand a new group of people, whose needs, wants and unknowns will certainly overlap a little (perhaps a lot) with the previous generation, but will nevertheless be different. That is the likely challenge, but there is no reason it cannot be met: all it takes is the development, though observation, of new explicit personas, leading to new implicit personas, leading to mythical AI-execution trader manager personas.

We’ll be ready.

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