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An Interview with Nick Wiles, Head of User Experience at Atom Bank

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
July 11, 2016

Atom Bank is a new, online-only bank that is remarkable for its clear emphasis on user experience. Nick Wiles, Head of User Experience at Atom Bank, who is shown in Figure 1, has brought some truly innovative design thinking to the typically very staid banking sector and is also notable for having some of the most amazing facial hair in User Experience!

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Figure 1—Nick Wiles
Nick Wiles

Nick’s History with Atom Bank

Peter: Nick, tell me a bit about your history with Atom Bank?

Nick: The idea for Atom Bank had started with two people, Mark Mullen, the CEO, and Anthony Thomson, Chairman of the Board. By the time they interviewed me in June 2014, the team had grown by a few more people to six full-timers, but that was it. There was no banking platform or anything else! When I started work in September, later that year, they had gone from six people round a table in a room to slightly bigger premises, and that was when the whole engagement really started properly. Even then, it was really in startup territory. We were going through the delights of getting our banking license. So we’ve done the whole shooting match from the ground up: we applied for a banking license and got it accepted—the first mobile bank in the UK to get one. We engaged various partners to assemble and piece together our custom technology infrastructure from up-to-date, existing solutions.

At the same time, we were building and continue to build the Atom brand from scratch. We had to convey the idea that it was a bank, but a different sort of bank. It was Atom. Our core brand concept is that Atom is your bank, and it becomes more and more your bank as we develop the technology platform. What we can offer you as a customer increases all the time, as we learn more about you. It’s a completely blank slate that brings its own trials and tribulations.

On the positive side: We don’t have to deal with legacy platforms. We don’t have to apply Band-Aids to make it work. From that point of view. we are in a very good position to start redefining what a user experience in banking is all about for a digital bank. One of the reasons I was hired was because my experience includes banking and full-service agencies. Stewart, that’s Stewart Bromley, COO, and I had a really good conversation in Leeds once where we shared a similar vision for what a bank could be and what the user experience could be. It was a meeting of minds.

Before Atom, I’d worked on a lot of contracts where the brief was essentially: “We want what they’ve got, but make it red or make it green.”

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Contextual Navigation and Adaptive Interfaces

Nick: I’d long been interested in the concept of contextual navigation and the idea that you didn’t really need a fixed architecture for a Web site in order to navigate. That idea had intrigued me for quite some time—as well as the idea that you can provide people with controls when they need them. I love the idea that you don’t have to go looking for navigation—that it’s there when you need it. So, as a notification comes in, you’re given a number of options. If you construct it right, you don’t need conventional navigation. You can just navigate based on what you’re doing at that moment in time.

Peter: So when you talk about it being “your bank” and “your experience,” the navigation adapting to what the customer does is a key part of that?

Nick: It is ultimately. The concept of us knowing what you need at any instant in time is nonsense. The concept of us knowing what’s important to you is also nonsense because everybody is unique and has different demands based on what they’re doing at that moment in time. All we’re trying to do is give our customers a way to deal with things there and then. As with the GTD (Getting Things Done) approach, if you can deal with something there and then, and you can deal with it in two minutes, you’re more likely to do it. It brings in a productivity element to the interaction. If we push something to you regarding your account activity, for instance, and then we give you options for dealing with it, it’s done. If you don’t want to deal with something there and then, we can remind you on your own terms or automate the process for you. It’s entirely up to you how you deal with it.

Even if two people open the same type of account on the same day, over time, their experiences will be different based on how the app has adapted to their needs and requirements. The requirement for us is no longer to provide, say, top-left navigation. The users are driving it through their activity. The users get a customer experience based on their activity. It’s an idea that really creates a bit of a stir until people try it.

One of the great things about going to Atom was that everyone is very open to trying something different. That spawned the concept that your money and your finances have some kind of life to them, so why not interact with them in that way and allow customers to customize their engagement?

Nick’s Design Approach

Peter: How would you characterize your design approach?

Nick: You and I are probably of the same era, in that we came through interaction design when it was still based around the Apple and Microsoft human-computer interaction guidelines—and the work of Don Norman, Jakob Nielsen, and others. As part of my degree, I researched computers in learning and how cognition works, with a key principle being that one concept per screen helps users to concentrate on the task in hand. At Atom, we’re trying to present one concept on the screen that the customer can deal with, then move on, which makes the interaction quite quick.

I’ve generally tried to stay principle rich, as opposed to device specific. So I think about design from an original principles perspective, in terms of how people operate and work, then bring the productivity element in there as well—how people do things on a day-to-day basis—and what kind of cognitive load they have. As a result of all that, you start to think about chunking and how people can digest information and how they want to receive it. Then you look at the concept of how people absorb information depending on how it’s presented.

So having digested all this myself, I began to think that, for someone to be in the moment—an expression we use often at Atom—when dealing with their finances, they typically have all this other stuff going on around them. I wanted to make it so they can concentrate on the things they need to worry about and not worry about the rest. In the user interface, I do that by serving them things they’re interested in, that they’ve already decided they want to know. When customers are accessing the bank through the app on their phone screen, there is limited space for providing information, so we present it sequentially, and this chunking approach works very well for that. You’re then in a very good position to deal with the sort of attention-deficit disorder brought on by Facebook feeds, Twitter feeds, and all the other notifications you’re competing with that are grabbing people’s attention.

Peter: Coming from a computer-science background, I can see parallels with the UNIX philosophy, where you have a lot of very simple tools, each of which does one thing, but does it really well. These individual commands are then chained together to produce useful units of functionality. But that can only be done because each is robust and focused. It’s quite refreshing to hear you talk like this because a lot of people tend to get carried away with the almost superficial aspect of design—in terms of “Is it pretty or is it not?”

Nick: From my experiences with mind mapping, I understand that the brain is working in full color and high definition (HD). With that in mind, if you create an experience that is engaging enough and brings color into the mix—but doesn’t rely on color—is based on solid principles, and allows the user to focus on the task at hand, you can engage the different sorts of memory—spatial, motor, and so on—pulling all those things into a user interface that doesn’t rely on having a navigation bar and wasting half the screen on unnecessary elements. This allows you to focus on the bits that are interesting. If you then bring in an element of color that is customizable and unique to users, they’ll realize that they can start to play with it as much as they want, positioning things as they want them, which brings spatial memory into play. Then you start to bring in the concept of the brain working at full tilt rather than just having to remember a list of stuff. You’re bringing in color and position, fluidity and art and rhythm, and all that stuff that the brain thrives on, and you end up with a better experience and better recall.

I’m playing with a lot of stuff and, while I do have to be careful not to overload people in one way or another, it has been good to step outside the mold. We’ve had some great feedback from usability testing. It’s still very early in the process, but I love the ability that we have to experiment with different ways of displaying information, especially with the potential of infographics. That plays to what I was saying earlier about the brain working in HD, in full color, and thriving in that space.

The UX Team at Atom

Peter: So moving from that initial team of two people sitting around a table, the company is now at 150 employees. How has the UX team developed in that time?

Nick: When I joined in 2014, it was just me. We did work with the design agency TH_NK for some time, while we were getting the internal team running. For a while, my team consisted of me and a couple of people from TH_NK working on a contract basis. We were working in the usual way: masses of sketches, lots of ideas, drawing visuals out so you could see what happens, understanding how people use a phone—one-handed or two-handed—how they hold it against their ear, on the train.

Over time, I’ve recruited my own team. At the moment, the User Experience and Design team consists of me and seven others. Then we have the 10-person development team on site, for the front and presentation layer, as well as the main integration work with our stack and the middleware. There is a team of about 20 people building the app now, which has grown slowly over the last 12 months. The rest of the company is made up of business analysts, product specialists, people creating banking propositions, contact support staff, and all the sorts of people you would expect to need to run a full bank. We have no intention of offering a bank branch. We have no intention of operating a retail banking platform on a Web site or by phone.

Differentiating on Design

Nick: Our sole touchpoint for the customer is the mobile app, and because that’s the main interaction point, that’s why the user experience is so important and the customer experience is so important for Atom. The user experience needs to work and be appealing and have an element of difference.

Peter: A little while ago, I interviewed Toby Stennett of Simple. I wonder if you’ve had any contact with other startups or innovators in the same field?

Nick: We talked with Simple, because BBVA are one of our key strategic investors. Though I’ve not spoken directly with any of the other bank startups. I think the thing that makes Atom unique is that we’ve assembled our own end-to-end solution, using our own preferred technology components, which means we’re not tied by trying to create a different user experience on top of another banking platform. While it’s taken us a bit longer because we’ve had to source and select all the systems ourselves, we’ve been able to do more than just say “How could this look a bit different,” then bolt our design onto the existing banking platform, with all the functionality that is there already. We’ve designed something from the ground up that we’re happy with and that we believe puts us in a strong position for the long game.

Peter: It seems to be clear that, from the outset, the founders understood that user experience would need to be a key differentiator for Atom.

Nick: The thing that became apparent from my earliest conversation with Stewart was that user experience has to be important, because there would be no other touchpoint with the bank for the customer. If all you have is this one touchpoint, it needs to be a differentiator and be simple, straightforward, and easy to operate within the mobile space.

Opportunities and Challenges

Peter: What have the opportunities and challenges been, starting with a completely blank slate in comparison to having, for instance, an existing banking stack to work within? Does the technical architecture run ahead of the UX design work? Does one run ahead of the other, or do the different areas bounce ideas off each other?

Nick: We’re starting to do more of that now. To begin with, we were way ahead on the UX-design side, working on conceptual pieces, not having to worry too much about the technical side. There was a lot of work to do—and still is to do—on the technical side, to make the relevant data available to the user interface. But as time goes by, we need to better understand what data we are getting from our partner systems to enable us to deliver all we want in the front end for our customers. So, on the UX side, do we say, “Hey, it’s a big open field!” Or do we start thinking, “Okay, we’ll start with this little thing here to make sure this bit works, then we’ll move on and make sure this bit works.” The challenge really is that you have a completely open field, and you have to define your own boundaries based on what you need to release and what you want to release with that in mind.

To build and operate a successful bank long term, to be a sustainable business, you need to look after your balance sheet. Our commercial proposition is really simple—in that it is the traditional banking model of taking consumer deposits to fund business lending and consumer mortgages. Therefore, as a full retail banking proposition, we need to start with the entry point of savings accounts, and that’s what the app delivers at the moment. You can download the app and open a savings account. Later on this year, hopefully, we will be releasing a current account. We are thinking about ways in which you can interact with your current account. That will, in turn, inform what we need on the stack in terms of data sources and providing the sort of customization we need.

During the conceptual phase we were given free rein to do whatever we wanted to do—very much a case of What if? and What could it be? Then there was an element of reining it back and focusing on savings accounts, then opening it up again and focusing on current accounts for the first iteration, and then we’ll focus on the next problem. So, at the moment, we are working on elements of current accounts, savings accounts, and mortgages. It’s like the classic diamond pattern from iterative design, where you start with the focal point of current accounts, thinking What could it be? Then, you move out to define the boundary and back in to see what it needs to be at this point, regardless of the rest of the good thinking that you have, which you could bring in later.

The boundaries are controlled by the delivery point and the sense of what it needs to be. For later versions, the cycle repeats itself. And while we’re doing this, the technical stack is being developed, with a better understanding of the level of fluidity that we can apply to the user experience. The key is that, even though we are using a different way of presenting information on the screen, we are still relying on principles and ways of operating, with options that provide a level of structure that people need to complete a task without breaking something else. Within the broader context, we want to get to a point where we are able to have multiple versions of the user interface on top of the iceberg that is the stack, which is compliant with all the relevant banking regulations. We are learning all the time as we work in that boundary layer, ensuring that the loose coupling between the different layers continues to give us huge flexibility in the design of the user interface.

Peter: What sort of advantages does assembling your own end-to-end solution offer?

Nick: Well, I’ve previously worked with Barclays and Lloyds, and the banking platform was often compared to a Model T Ford that only a few people knew how to work and was kept in a secure environment with only a few people having access. To do anything useful with it, you had to apply multiple layers of Band-Aids. What we’re trying to achieve is completely the opposite: to give complete flexibility and rapid iteration in the user experience and functionality, without affecting everything else. The expectation in so many places now is that the customer isn’t going to care how long it takes us to do something at the back end. All they want is the refresh of the front end. Assembling our own end-to-end solution gives us that level of flexibility in the functionality and the user experience without affecting what’s underneath.

Doing Things Differently

Peter: A lot of what you’ve talked about has focused on doing things differently from the norm. Can you expand a little bit on how you got to that point?

Nick: My background covered a lot of different areas: working in full-service agencies, for specialist agencies, for clients such as AOL, Discovery, and banks, as I mentioned previously. My interest in psychology, human-computer interaction, computer-aided learning…. It’s that mix that has brought me to where I am now. I see no reason why we need to just keep doing the same things we’ve done before and that everyone else is doing. We should never be scared about trying something that is completely different and that hasn’t been done before as a way of tackling the problems we face.

Peter: Thanks for your time! 

UX Manager at Distribution Technology

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. At Distribution Technology, Peter is responsible for the user experience of Web and mobile apps; working closely with analysts, testers, and developers; and developing a research program. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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