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Fidelity lab tackles technology for customers

Sean Belka, director of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, is silhouetted against a global display at Fidelity Labs.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Globe

Sean Belka, director of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, is silhouetted against a global display at Fidelity Labs.

This department of Fidelity Investments celebrates new patents, instead of mutual fund records. Its giant wall screens display new technology for investors, not the daily movements of the stock market.

This is Fidelity’s Center for Applied Technology, home to a team of 75 employees globally who work on high-tech projects for the investment and brokerage giant. While most people at the Boston firm are devoted to managing money and selling retirement plans, this group is responsible for innovation, including technology that helps customers do business with Fidelity and get information about their investments.

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“You can imagine a world 10 years from now,’’ says Sean Belka, director of the center, “cameras that know you’re not happy.’’ Or maybe not, he concedes: “That may have too much of a big brother factor, and that may not be where it goes.’’

Fidelity does not try to predict which technology will catch on, Belka says. The firm’s not pushing Google Glass or the latest iPad. It just wants to be ready when customers decide what they like.

But Fidelity does hold 80 patents, including one for encrypted cookies, which have become the industry standard for keeping websites secure. When the center first started, in 1998, its hot technology was a two-way pager system for online traders. By the mid-2000s, the group was busily creating apps for smartphones and tablets. (Who knew you’d need an app when you had a snazzy website?).

Lately, Fidelity is focused on the specific times of day people use their devices — phone on the morning train ride; tablet in the evening, while watching television.

In most cases, Fidelity is not inventing high-tech gizmos from scratch. It is researching the latest technology already in the market for possible uses for its customers. Will people want to wear Google’s glasses with the tiny, slightly spooky, screen to check the market while simultaneously holding a conversation? Will they prefer a wristwatch for texting the kids and scanning stock prices, over checking the phone about 200 times a day?

“It’s an evolution,’’ Belka said. “How do we invest in technology to help create a better customer experience?’’

Fidelity spends about $2.5 billion companywide on technology each year. While the center commands a small slice of that budget, it has an influence on where the dollars are directed and how customers interact with the firm.

For instance, the iPhone app the group created in 2010 has been downloaded onto 1.9 million customer devices. And while Fidelity will not say how many mobile trades customers place on those devices, volume has tripled since the app was introduced.

In 2005, the group launched Fidelity Labs, a unit that tests technology with customers under close observation.

On a recent visit, a customer sat in a room set up like a home office and logged into her account with a desktop computer to conduct business, while Fidelity Labs employees monitored a screen in a connected room. Among other things, the test captured the movements of her eyes to track how she navigated Web pages.

Research like that with many customers determined that on-screen pictures of people and other images were not helpful. Customers assumed the images were ads and tuned them out.

Other tests with cameras examined not just whether people could accomplish a task they set out to do online, but whether it was a pleasing experience. Did they frown or furrow their brows?

Perhaps more intriguing, Fidelity’s technology center is working with prestigious technology and design schools on important big-picture questions, like why we have trouble saving money and how to encourage people to talk about difficult end-of-life financial issues.

Perry Klebahn, an entrepreneur who started a snowshoe business and then ran sales for the outdoor gear company Patagonia Inc., teaches at Stanford University’s Institute of Design, known as the d.school. Fidelity sponsors some of his classes, where students have worked on questions of how to create “infectious action.’’

In one assignment, they were instructed to figure out how to get people to show up at a hip hop concert. They had to promote the event and learn to make it go viral.

“What we aren’t is experts in financial services,’’ Klebahn said. The collaboration is intended to help create ideas that may have a life beyond academia, he explained. And sometimes students get hired to work for Fidelity and bring their training with them.

Fidelity is exploring online games that promote investment savvy, including one that’s expected to launch this week. And it’s working on ways to encourage young workers to start contributing to their 401(k) retirement plans right away, so they don’t leave employer matches untapped.

Fred Leichter, chief customer experience officer for Fidelity’s Center of Applied Technology, is spending the year at the d.school as a fellow. He’s studying “intergenerational finance,’’ a project aimed at understanding the needs of people with aging parents, as well as those of widows and widowers.

Leichter said he is digging into why the tough conversations don’t happen, and what could make them easier.

“It’s a big unmet meet,’’ Leichter said in a phone interview from California. “It’s a complex, nasty problem. It’s a delicate, intricate one, full of emotions and things people do that aren’t necessarily logical.’’

How the results of the project will translate into products at Fidelity is uncertain. There could be white papers and tips to customers, and perhaps other tools will evolve. The exploration itself may spark ideas within the far reaches of the company, Leichter said.

“We’re trying to create more innovators around the firm,’’ he said, “not just innovation.’’

Beth Healy can be reached at Beth.Healy@globe.com.
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