Absa Bank

At Absa I'm responsible for the design of the transactional banking app, used by millions of our retail and business bank customers. I lead a team of 20+ designers who design and ship financial services to customers.

Absa is one of the 5 big banks in South Africa. It's a traditional financial services provider that’s been around for a long time. It’s got all the legacy of a big bank, with services including transactional banking, short term credit, insurance, wealth management, vehicle finance, mortgages, asset finance—not to mention the corporate and investment banking side of things. It still uses some core systems written in COBOL. Enough said.

Back in 2017

I joined Absa in late 2017 to look after the design of the banking app. As soon as I arrived there were a couple of things we needed to tackle right away.

Absa’s transactional banking app circa 2017

I pulled the team together and started cataloguing the problem areas. We all agreed that many things needed to change. We could immediately fix some of the design processes that were hindering consistency, but it was more of a challenge to go back and fix the fundamental issues like the information architecture. We had a roadmap full of important features as the bank was moving away from branch-based servicing and towards web and app. How could we go back and fix all the problems we had, without dropping a beat on all the new services that we needed to ship?

The answer arrived in an unlikely form: our marketing team had decided that Absa was to be completely rebranded.

For a week or two I decided to ignore all the upcoming features (except 1 or 2 emergencies) and get the team to focus on the future that we wanted to work towards (it’s ironic that today we have teams that can focus on this all the time, but this was a radical idea for a traditional bank a few years ago).

We explored a whole host of ideas, brought the best ones together and built a basic prototype that showed the key changes we wanted to make, as well as how we could show up with the new brand.

That same week the Group Head of Digital walked past and saw us working through the prototype. “Huh”, he said, “I like that. When can we ship it?” I got a big fright and told him not to sneak up on us like that, but when I showed it to the Head of Product the next day, he asked me the same question.

The prototype managed to capture the pain that everyone was feeling (Where should we put that new feature?) and it gave the team a compelling vision of what we could be. It still surprises me to this day to think about how quickly it spread through such a large organisation and gained such momentum.

So the seed was planted.

The biggest risk was that the group had set a date for going to market with the rebrand. We would have to design and rebuild everything and hit that date. There could be no excuses. There would be no second chances. If we were going to do this, we had 3 months.

There are some moments in your life when the right team comes together around a huge challenge and simply decides that it will win. It’s not rational. It’s not even reasonable. But normal people who believe in each other, get caught up in a worthwhile mission together—and they don’t back down. That’s what happened.

We took over a boardroom and made it into our war room. We removed all distractions from the team—even posting a “watch dog” outside to keep uninvited stakeholders away. We put together a plan. We pitched it to the business. We set up very clear milestones and explained our ways of working to the stakeholders. And then we got to work.

Design process

In a week or two we solved the big picture design of the app. This showed in broad strokes how the important features would hang together and it was enough for our engineers to start working with.

We focused on the basic transactional features like making payments or checking account balances, which constitute the vast majority of app launches for our customers.

Next we built a catalogue of components and explained to everyone that these were the “lego bricks” from which the whole app would be built.

We appointed a “chief librarian” who’s full time focus was the design system and component library (we now have a team to do this, but this is where it started).

At this time sharing design files was a real challenge for us—especially given the rate of change (the design system was evolving as we solved for all the different features). We’d heard about Abstract (version control for Sketch files) and we jumped on it right away. It took a while for our less technical designers to understand the git-based workflow, but they got it eventually, and it supercharged our ability to build design specs in parallel.

Some of the UX patterns that we tested and explored along the way.

I had a research team doing user testing on everything as we went and we were also paying close attention to the complaints coming into our call centres or being posted on the app stores. All this gave us a very clear picture about where the problems with our existing app were.

Using this information we were able to focus our energy on the areas that needed it most, redesigning those problem features and establishing the metrics we would use to drive them forward. At the same time we could ensure that we didn’t break or overthink the areas that were working fine.

This was a messy, iterative process. We’d often draw a picture on a whiteboard and start building from that, while a designer finalised the spec.

This could be especially tricky when designing relatively mundane features like on-boarding: however mundane on-boarding is, it is full of complex negative journeys, edge-cases and tangled logic.

We worked through everything steadily, often adjusting our priorities every other day but tracking our overall progress closely.

A brief moment of reflection in a design team retrospective.

The last few weeks flew past in a blur of iterative testing and final polishing, and when launch day came around we were there early and ready to go. The media picked up our story and for a breathless few days we anxiously waited as feedback started to come. When it did it was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few quick fixes that needed to be done for some obscure edge-cases, but we managed the releases carefully, so there was nothing that affected more than a handful of customers.

The app design team hanging out over a pizza after 3 months of intense work. We spent the afternoon together at an art fair catching our breath.

Outcome

Since 2017 the number of active users has grown by more than 60% year-on-year, to around 1.8m active users. Customer engagement has gone from approximately 1 session per week to upwards of 20 per month. And our App Store rating has gone from 2.7 to 4.7 out of 5 on both iOS and Android.

Since then...

We’ve since evolved the design system and added many new features and financial services to the app.

We’ve created new ways to pay people like location-based payments.

We’ve worked closely with Blind SA (a non-profit organisation in South Africa) to optimise the accessibility of our app.

We’ve explored many different ideas with customers. Here we’re getting customers to build their own interface as we evaluate transaction categories for relevance (our customer's notions about how much they actually spend in different areas is somewhat questionable).

Like this example, much of our work is explorative as we constantly work to set the vision for where we are going in the long term, as well as deliver a steady stream of improved financial services to our market.