Melissa Cullen
Melissa Cullens
CXO Ellevest logo

Ellevest CXO on Grit, Intent and Overcoming Unconscious Design Bias

When it comes to designing experiences, Ellevest CXO Melissa Cullens believes "the hardest thing to overcome is your cultural reality." From starting at a sports marketing agency to going back to school to being hand-picked to join Ellevest, Melissa has cultivated an impressive design career. Most recently, her work for the women-focused digital investment platform has been recognized by the likes of Fast Company, CNBC and Money Magazine. Here, Melissa shares how she got to where she is today and how she uses empathy to connect user behavior and emotion with innovative, modern-day design.

What led you to your role as Chief Experience Officer for Ellevest?

Hard work and a decent amount of stubbornness. But we've rebranded that as “grit,” right? I started my design career in Atlanta, GA at a sports marketing agency. And since I was always the kid that stepped on the ball, and never the kid who kicked it, you can imagine it wasn’t a great fit. When I was ready to leave, my portfolio of cereal box fronts wasn’t enough to get me my dream job, so I went back to school and got my masters before moving to New York City.

I had the good fortune to get hired by a series of really amazing consultancies where I built up a portfolio of work that combined brand thinking, business strategy, user experience and most importantly, customer research, before deciding I’d like to explore going in-house.  Charlie Kroll (cofounder, President and COO of Ellevest) found my portfolio on and was particularly interested in my work for, so we got to talking and almost five years and three titles later, here we are.

What are some of the unconscious biases you've found in UX design?

Unconscious is important. Most designers work really hard to build a deep relationship and understanding of their end-user, but at the end of a long day, the person you usually have around to get feedback from is yourself. I think in design, the hardest thing to overcome is your cultural reality. At Ellevest, we see over and over again that the culture of money is completely different for women than it is for men — the words used and the behaviors that are rewarded are opposite. And when you’re creating an experience, those messages impact the language you choose, the frameworks and models you apply — even the imagery chosen. We don’t mean to lock people out, but we do.

Since the initial launch of Ellevest, how have you evolved your thinking and approach?

Our first years were really devoted to serving a particular demographic — a woman that our early research told us would be the most likely to have a need for and interest in the product. Right now, we're spending time exploring and learning about new pain points amongst different demographics of women so that we can expand our experience and product suite to be a better fit for the money issues of more women.

What’s one way you’ve used feedback from women to change a platform design feature?

One solution we tried was providing milestones for how much you would “need” to have saved (for retirement) at different ages. And a particular post needing 3x your salary by the time you’re 40 was not well received. It highlighted a lot of things — but mostly that these sorts of milestones weren't providing the benchmarks that we hoped would make things more clear. Instead, they were making women feel ashamed because their earnings and expenditures (hello student loans, hello black women's and Latina women's equal paydays) weren’t taken into account.

So, we shifted our approach to ask women to measure themselves by their own standards, and have begun working with women in the community to bring forward a wide variety of examples of how it's done so that there are examples from real women, not arbitrary calculations.

What’s currently happening in design that most excites you and how is it changing the future of the industry?

More and more people are collaborating cross-functionally to develop brands and experiences, and technologies like webflow, Shopify and Squarespace are helping democratize the process. I have a hypothesis that many of the decisions about the order of check-out flows and funding experiences will be optimized through rapid A/B testing that even smaller companies can access in the not-too-distant future.

And while it is a little scary to know the robots are coming for our jobs, I think it’s an amazing opportunity for designers to be able to let go of some of the more granular work and make space and time to help companies ask more human business questions and build better relationships by driving deep understanding of their audiences.

How do you continuously get user feedback and insights?

Everyone at Ellevest is responsible for understanding and empathizing with our clients, and each team tests and researches their work, brand and marketing included. Our content channels are actually a major resource for finding emotions, trends and topics that will resonate with our audience.

Ellevest has 80% of all engagement around wealth management on Instagram and 2.5M social followers.

How do you pick and develop the talent on your team?

“Strong opinions, loosely held” that’s how Angelique Belizaire, one of our product designers, described herself in our interview process and I really love that. That ability to care deeply about your work while also being able to scrap it and move forward is not easy, but one of the most important qualities in a designer.

When it comes to helping people grow, I have found myself thinking about gardening. Plants and designers have a lot in common — we all need the right combination of light (freedom to explore) and water (clear definition of boundaries) to grow. Too much or too little, and creativity won’t thrive. It’s a tricky balancing act, but in my experience, more freedom helps people learn faster and better, even if it means things aren’t always perfect.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best preparation is to set an intention.

What’s something that most people don't know about you?

I’m a great accent mimic.

What podcasts would you most recommend to fellow designers?

I’m always listening to Hidden Brain, Dolly Parton’s America and On Being.