How N26 created a design-centric culture from day one. An interview with Christian Hertlein, Head of Design at N26.
N26 is probably the most prominent mobile bank out there right now. It’s taken the banking industry by storm, and has numbers to show for it! Founded in 2013, N26 boasts over 3.5 million customers across 25 European markets; 5 locations in Berlin, New York, São Paulo, Barcelona, Vienna; and more than 1300 employees. But its explosive growth is not the only thing that made N26 the startup to watch out for. Its state of the art intuitive design is what really sets it apart from the competition.
At AJ&Smart we’re passionate about amazing product design, so we were super excited to sit down with N26’s Head of Design – Chrisitan Hertlein! We chatted about the role of design in modern companies, how N26 manages to create such a unique customer experience, and what Christian looks for when hiring designers into his team!
Hey Christian! We’re HUGE fans of N26 at AJ&Smart. You’re Head of Design at N26 – a dream job for many – so let’s go all the way back and talk about how you got there…
Christian: While I was still studying in school, I started programming websites myself. I was interested in the coding part of the process, and design sort of came along with that.
So when it was time to decide what I wanted to do after school, it was clear to me that it had to be either coding or design. I ultimately decided to go into design, because my brother, who is 4 years older than me, went on to study engineering, and I wanted to do something different.
I felt the urge to learn design from scratch, so I completed an apprenticeship in a small agency as a graphic designer for digital and print media. It was great for learning all the basics, but my ultimate aim was to study design at university. So that’s what I did, and started studying interaction design.
After my studies I worked for a few excellent startups, and then for IXDS. Gaining initial working experience helped me see how I can apply technology, psychology, and design in practice to create real products.
Nevertheless I was very keen to understand the role of design within bigger companies. So then I started working for IDEO and spent 6 years there. The beauty of working there was not only seeing how design fits in the bigger companies, but also how it is applied to the needs of different industries.
Learning how to communicate the design in different settings was the biggest learning during my time at IDEO. The downside, and ultimately what made me look for a new challenge, was a lack of ownership. Working as a consultant, I only got to spend a few weeks or months on a challenge. And after the handover, I rarely ever got to see what got implemented and what didn’t. It started to feel a bit like working in a bubble; the ‘reality check’ was missing.
During my last project at IDEO, I spent a couple of years working in an integrated lab with one of our clients. That project was eye-opening for me. I saw how helpful it was to understand the full context and to have a feeling for the overall ‘mood’ of the company.
That was the point when I decided to leave IDEO and joined N26. It was an exciting time: N26 just got their banking license, and we had a couple of products out in the market already.
The products were basically imitations of traditional banking offerings: credit, debit, and savings accounts. The main question at the time was: what do we do now, so we’re not just imitating traditional banking anymore? How could we evolve with what was available in technology?
What was N26 like when you joined, compared to what it’s like now?
When I joined N26 2.5 years ago, it felt like a big family. You knew who was responsible for what; what each member of the team was doing. The team simply had a closer connection.
It hasn’t changed drastically, the energy stayed the same. But we grew fast, and this impacted the way we communicate within the company. We now have multiple locations across different time zones, so that obviously has an effect.
In the time since I joined we as a team have had a lot of learnings. Starting from learning which campaigns work and which don’t, to how we should position ourselves, to how we can be the most beneficial to our customers.
Anyone that knows N26 will be able to tell that Design is central to everything you guys do. Was this something that happened naturally, or was it something that had to be continually reinforced?
Usually, designers need to sell their founders on the importance of design. With N26 it’s not quite the case, as our management team is generally interested in design so that definitely made things easier.
Did it mean that good design was always a default? No, not at all!
Especially at the rate we’re growing, there’s a constant need to reinforce and communicate what design at N26 is all about.
We do that by including design into the onboarding process for new employees. So twice a month I present to a group of about 50 to 80 people and tell them what I’m doing here and what role design plays at N26.
Especially at the rate we’re growing, there’s a constant need to reinforce and communicate what design at N26 is all about.
The core message I try to push is that design is not only about the visual aspect. It’s about the thought process, iteration, input, research, involving people into the process. It’s also about being inclusive as a designer. We need to open up in order to invite other people to participate with us.
Another way I make sure design stays central to what we do is by pushing my team to collaborate with the people around them.
How does the Design team at N26 work with Product and Marketing?
As the company is growing and maturing, we’re improving our processes and how we work together. When we were smaller, designers were able to just go over to the person who wrote the brief and talk the details over. As we become bigger, that doesn’t really work.
We shifted our focus to bigger topics. We started working with multidisciplinary teams, which include people from strategy, content, and creative teams. This approach helps us make sure different perspectives are represented, and all relevant stakeholders are involved – all without blowing up the number of meetings.
On the product side, the process is a bit different, because the product designers are integrated within other teams: engineers, QA, PMs.
As far as workflows go, we start with a discovery phase, concepting, and building high-fidelity prototypes. We also bring in user research and validation in pretty early on, so that we don’t pursue an idea that doesn’t make sense. We run several iterations and cycles. And we increase the fidelity every time until we can shift from exploration to execution.
One thing that definitely helps us create more frictionless communication is ADL – Atomic Design Language. It’s a project we started about 1.5 years ago after a screen consistency check-up revealed we had 7 different variations for just one app screen! That made us realize the need to systemize our work and create a more unified experience.
Our main challenge was not only creating that library for us as designers, but also making sure it gets implemented across the board. So instead of looking at it from a purely design perspective, we looked at how engineers created components. That’s why we created the Atomic Design Language, which is completely code-based and has a direct visual translation. This helps us communicate much more efficiently, but also helps us scale fast.
Do you run workshops with your team for ideation/planning/problem framing or solving? If so what types of workshops do you use?
On one hand, we want to be as purposeful as possible with the meeting time. On the other hand, efficiency is not the only measurement for a meeting. A meeting can also have a culture effect, which is also important for success.
As for any particular rituals or workshops, every Monday we have a stand-up meeting, that lasts for about half an hour. The whole design team comes together to share what is going on, the main things going on during the week. This ritual is important to us because it’s one of the few times during the week when we come together as a whole team.
And on Fridays, we have a retrospective where we look back at the things that we have finished, the projects we have done and the learnings that emerged.
And then some other workshops that we do are regular design discipline-specific meetings between brand design, product design, and user research teams, where we share projects that are going on and train design critique. That helps us stay aligned, make sure we keep up the creative tension and have a safe environment to rationalize our decisions.
We hear from a lot of people in our audience that it’s sometimes hard for a Designer to get a ‘seat at the table’ straight off the bat – what advice would you give here?
I think the very first step is asking “why”. It’s a very simple way to get into the conversation.
I think the main challenge most of the time is that you as a designer receive a brief and you need to act on that brief. What is not clear sometimes is the context, ambitions, and expectations for this project.
What we as designers need to be aware of, is how much more can we contribute to that particular request. So asking yourself “why” helps you create context for yourself, and also challenging the ideas and looking at them critically. That way you’re not just executing anymore – you’re actively participating in the conversation.
What we as designers need to be aware of is how much more can we contribute to a particular request. Asking yourself “why” helps create context for yourself, and become part of the conversation instead of just executing.
You’re analyzing the root problem statement and helping other departments solve that, instead of just designing feature XYZ for a screen in the app.
This might be challenging because when you’re just starting out, you might not even have head-space for thinking about that. So you need to master your craft to be able then to think about the why.
Have you observed the role of Design within organizations changing over your career? If so, what have you noticed?
In startups, the role of design is often seen purely from execution perspective: there’s an app, and we need a screen for it.
Now the approach is shifting from execution-driven tasks to a more strategic thinking. So our roles as designers have also shifted from creating just the visual component to being responsible for the whole experience.
I purposefully don’t say User Experience or Service Experience or Brand Experience because it’s the combination of all of them.
Designers now need to understand what the business and strategy are about. It’s crucial to get to the bottom of your company’s strategy and understand it, to then be able to integrate it into the design. Now, more than ever, designers need to think more about collaborating, rather than just the pure craft of design.
What does a day in the life of Head of Design at N26 look like?
There’s no typical day. I think that would be boring.
Pretty much the only thing that stays constant is my morning planning session. Every morning I block out half an hour to look at my calendar, check out what is happening that day, go through my emails and slack messages.
The approach is shifting from execution-driven tasks to a more strategic thinking. So our roles as designers have also shifted from creating just the visual component to being responsible for the whole experience.
Everything else is a mix of working on culture in different ways. I’m constantly working on ways to keep up the good culture in the design team, and ways to bridge product and marketing.
I also make sure to block time in my calendar for some downtime. That allows me to think about strategy and ideate.
Apart from that, a big part of my routine is making sure I stay connected with the people in the company. It doesn’t mean I’m running around blindly chatting to everyone and having random meetings, but rather interacting with people on different levels of seniority to see how we can initiate ideas, concepts, in different areas of our business. This side of my work routine is very important because it ultimately allows me to see where and how design can help us achieve our business goals.
And then obviously I concentrate on working closely with the design team, so they are able to grow and develop as well, and don’t spend their time repeating the same tasks over and over again.
When you’re hiring into your team, what (aside from practical design skills) do you look for?
A few things, actually.
The candidate has to be open-minded. It’s crucially important because as a designer you need to be open to challenging yourself. That means allowing other people to give you feedback, and being open to integrating other people’s perspectives into your work. You have to be willing to change the processes, to iterate and learn.
Diversity is another big aspect. We strive to create an overall diverse environment at N26, and include people of different cultural backgrounds, all genders, and orientations.
I also assess the candidate’s fit, to make sure they’re complementary to the team: what do they bring to the table that we don’t yet have?
Another quality I look for is creative tension. Creative tension is what lets teams generate energy, bounce ideas off of each other, develop critical thinking.
Attention to detail is another thing on my list. It’s obviously very important as a designer to pay attention to visual details, but even beyond that – how much attention do you pay to the purpose of your design work? Do you understand where it fits within the strategy and business goals? How granular can you go? Do you understand how the user will benefit from this?
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice when you were just starting out, what would it be?
The advice I would give myself if I could go back would be simply to relax a bit more sometimes.
When I started working at IDEO, I did a lot of overtime, because I wanted to get to the same level with all the brilliant people I was working with. I stressed myself too much and was too strict on myself. Was that efficient or helpful? Questionable.
How much attention do you pay to the purpose of your design work? Do you understand where it fits within the strategy and business goals?
Ultimately, stress is never helpful. It’s counterproductive. I see the same thing with junior designers in my team. They are as nervous as I was back then, and they put themselves under so much pressure, that it blocks them, instead of allowing them to be creative and see the beauty of the product they’re working on.
It’s easier said than done, and it was definitely challenging for me as well. But I’m getting better at it: Zooming out, and looking at the situation with a fresh perspective.