The annual pension review: turning bland into engaging

The annual pension review: turning bland into engaging

It’s that time of year when my annual pension statements turn up. I’ve got various pots dotted around the place and what arrives in my post is best described as “turgid”. They don’t tell me what I need to know, maybe even mislead me a little. After wading through a half-dozen pages of dull text, I rarely feel enthused for my future.

There are regulatory restrictions put on companies to disclose certain information. There’s also an expectation that investment companies will present a professional image to customers who need to trust their money will be available when they need it, for as long as they need it.

I set myself a challenge. If I loosened the regulatory constraints a little and focused on what would be useful, what would an annual pension statement look like. Cue the music…

(Oh, and before everyone piles in with comments about “my” pension I made all the numbers up!)

What information do I need?

My previous work in the financial services sector gave me a few clues beyond sitting down and “having a think”. Using personas from a prior project, I settled on the annual review had to answer four key questions:

1. What is my plan worth today?

2. How has it grown?

3. Will it be enough for when I retire?

4. What can I do to save more?

The first is obvious: I want to know what my investment is worth. It acts as a baseline for any decisions or thinking that follows.

How it has grown tells me whether I’ve made a good decision. All the plans I’ve received have shown growth over the past 12 months, but I wanted to go further. Reassurance comes from seeing consistent growth, so I settled on showing performance over 5 years.

Reviews will throw a number at you that suggests how much you might get each month (or year) when you retire. This number becomes gospel, which can lead to disappointment when the first cheque arrives. Again, I wanted to go further and show how different scenarios could provide for the future.

A couple of my reviews have included “tips” for improving my retirement income. These were generic text that appeared to be added as a “good idea” without thinking how to make them relevant to me.

Layouts and designs.

Current layouts are walls of text in A4 portrait. If you’re lucky, they might have colour backgrounds and big, bright fonts to highlight key bits of text. Either way, they’re as dull as ditchwater.

Pensions are serious business and will not benefit from being jazzed up to look like a hip retail brand. I wanted to improve the physical structure of the document as they often suffer from problems coming from “mail merge mania”. Given the number of times I’ve sat with people who have spread documents from financial advisors around a table, I decided each page had to fulfil a specific purpose.

The layout

After a bit of brainstorming, I settled on a structure and layout. It would be A4 landscape (easier to read on a laptop, desktop monitor or tablet in landscape where most people seem to read these things digitally) with a clear page structure:

  • Introduction;
  • Plan performance;
  • Future projections;
  • Investment suggestions; and
  • Assumptions.


I pulled my old “Green Investment Company ltd” brand out of archive, which was last seen in a mock-up of an investment app. A subdued colour pallet was chosen that reinforced a professional, “trust us” message. Two typefaces were also selected: Helvetica to give the headings a crisp feel, Gill Sans for the main body as reassuring and easy to read in print.

The underlying page grid was set out in Affinity Publisher. I used a simple grid, placing the standard company and regulatory disclaimer on each page. This was removed from the design before publication.

Pension plan annual review page layout
Basic page layout showing the underlying grid

Each page followed a similar structure in having a title, some text that explained what the page was about and then the content. I chose a conversational style of writing, hopefully to make it easier to engage with.

Assembling the data

The first version used live data from one of my reviews. This gave me a way to check what I was producing was accurate. Later I swapped everything out for fake data created in Excel to at least look about right. What you read here isn’t my pension provision!

Pension plan annual review layout design
A clear snapshot of the current value of the plan, where money is invested and how it has performed over the past 5 years.

What could your plan be worth?

All of my plans present this as a value for annual and monthly potential income. In keeping with my principle of showing scenarios, I used a graphic to compare the best, worst and most likely returns. In practice (possibly because I am old), there was little differentiation between these three.

Pension plan annual review showing comparison of investing and scenarios
Charts are used to reinforce the idea the reader should keep investing.

However, there is a large differentiation between what happens if you stop investing or keep going. Overlaying these would have a nudge effect, showing the customer how much more they could receive if they keep up that monthly payment. It reinforces a perception they’re making the right decision by investing.

Could you do more?

The “tips” to improve my retirement income I’d seen were generic blocks of text. They had no relevance to me, so they were each to ignore.

In this design I made the tips more relevant by adding in context. For example, the plan is targeted at 65 as a retirement age, but the state retirement age has increased to 67. From a mail merge perspective, finding triggers to populate these text blocks with targeted information shouldn’t be difficult.

Pension plan review showing ways to increase retirement income
Content on this page is tailored to the individual reader.

Top and tail

The first page serves a double purpose. First is to introduce the document, what it’s for and how to use it. Second is to ease the reader into a mindset where they’re interrogating what they’re reading instead of passing over it casually. I do this with the call to check their personal data and take action if anything is wrong.

Pension plan review showing cover page information
Cover page follows the landscape format as an integral part of the document.

At the back are the assumptions within the document. I edited the assumptions from one of my pension plans. The aim was to get something that was brief, provided enough information to reassure the reader and didn’t sound like the pension company was covering their own failings. Again, I used an informal tone of voice, apart from in the final warning and disclaimer block.

Pension review assumptions
Assumptions are slimmed down to be readable.

Bottom line

It took about 6 hours to put this together using Affinity Publisher. Compared to the painful text-based documents I’ve received from my pension providers, it’s fresh and presents the information I need to decide about my future retirement plans. It also serves the company’s needs, not only in ticking regulatory boxes but also nudging behaviour to remain loyal to the company.

If you’d like to see the full concept, you can download it here.

About Ross A Hall

A business researcher and writer, I help companies find new markets, form strategies and build successful businesses.

Find out more about my work.

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