Reimagining the physical banking space

What if you could design a perfect bank branch. What would you do?

One of the most frustrating experiences, at least in Kenya, is physically going to a banking hall for service. The ambience is often uninviting and the experience not exactly pleasant.  I feel like I am in an unfamiliar space, foreign to my natural existence. I need to go into ‘bank mode’ and brace myself for the banking experience, since it is in no way in my natural way of doing things. Does it to be like this?  The queues…, the tellers, the  This is true for literally all banks. One of the leading regional banks stepped into the user experience lab during an iHub tour and one of the executives asked what we did.

They were thinking of building a high-tech, smart branch, with all modern services and possibilities you could imagine.  The pitch was pretty impressive, because they were at least trying to be innovative and not build just another branch. They were seriously thinking of enhancing service quality. The only problem I had was that they were thinking of this venture from a purely technical perspective. ‘What about the people, your customers.? I asked, what do they think of your new smart branch?” Well… we haven’t talked to them, but I think they will love it. It is a great idea, isn’t it?…”  Now, there was my problem with the whole approach.  Well intended, forward thinking, but… it’s flying without instruments.

I explained the Human Centered Design approach and how we help look at product and service design from a user’s perspective. While it sounds pretty obvious to think this way, it actually isn’t; unfortunately. They were interested in exploring things from their customers perspective to complement ideas they had so far. They were quite far down the process, considering they already had  architectural and interior plans professionally drawn ready to break ground. That is why I give them credit for even considering alternative thinking at this stage of the process.

The brief was to re-imagine the banking experience across all their clientele verticals from a user’s perspective.

We had to think of their clientele; high turnaround businesses, salaried employee,  traditional bankers, young-on-the-go, nouveau riche demanding specialized attention.

The challenge: How can we design a smart branch that caters for their varied clients.


The design thinking process is one of the most powerful processes in realizing novel thinking and ideas. It removes the expert mentality and allows for structured design conversations that take advantage of collective knowledge and experience. The process in my experience works best if user experience research is embedded in the empathy stage of the process.


We spoke to different subsets of people who the bank serves. Old, young, business bankers, personal account holders and people who think the bank is horrible and would never bank with them. We also spoke to the unbanked. We sought to understand what needs the current banking experience provides, and what their frustrations were. We also sought to understand their specific banking needs unique to each category. This gave a well-rounded view of prevailing challenges. (I am not at liberty to disclose details, as this would infringe on the confidentiality of the client)

One of the fascinating insights around banking services is that bank executives and staff don’t use normal banking process and therefore often cant empathize with their users. They can easily get their service without experiencing lo queues, talking to an unhelpful junior teller who clearly cant solve their problem etc.

We made the executive try and create an online account and he couldn’t! He was both frustrated and embarrassed. The frustrated users gave the team quite an earful. It was like they had finally gotten a chance to vent, (which was in itself telling of the bank’s feedback system). A lot of frustration and tension was in the room and for a moment I felt sorry for the bank team, who until then, thought things were not as bad. They were surprised how much frustration their clients felt.


Ideation is a powerful process. It allows for us to change frustration into design opportunity. It is particularly useful because the feedback begins to mean something. A design fallacy that often cost us so much is the notion that there is a brilliant designer somewhere who conjures up the perfect idea that works seamlessly. We live in a far more complex world with complex needs. None of us can figure them out in a vacuum. Ideation also allows for you to share the cognitive load with users. The net results are far richer, more useful and often innovative.

Some examples of how we turned frustration into design opportunities include;-

  1. How can we make the banking experience better for a mom with a nagging child for her, the child and fellow bankers?
  2. How could we make queuing fun?
  3. How can we make the banking experience accessible for quick services without needing to queue?
  4. How can we make the queuing system smart by anticipating client need before they come in?

In the end, we had multiple ideas, all born from experiences of the different users of banking and the frustration become bedrocks for innovative thinking.


We categorized the ideas and the result was an inclusive banking space with what services each segment expressed as important to them. THEIR ideas of a their perfect service branch.  We compared these with the ideas the bank initially had and there were high investment areas they realized didn’t necessarily register as priority for their clients. We consolidated user ideas into a collaborative branch sketch. they were worked into the final architectural and interior plans.  I am really stoked that the branch is currently being constructed in one of the city malls. I pass by every once in a while I can’t wait to see people use it. While I am not allowed to show the resultant drawings or reveal the bank, I feel lucky to practice design that impacts the people in a such real way. Imagine if we embraced human centered design in all we do? How much would we learn? How much real impact would we make?  This is why I am passionate about the power of design to change Africa and indeed, the world we live in.

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