The state of fintech – an outsider’s perspective

Note: This was first published on Medium in May 2014.

The financial services industry is a cornerstone of our modern economy. Yet throughout my tech-infused life, I find surprisingly dated practices still abound — why is my penned signature considered a security measure? Why does rolling over my 401k require snail-mailing a check? How could a $1.2 trillion industry still depend on the nearly-bankrupt U.S. Postal Service?

As someone considering where to work next, I find technology companies targeting these inefficiencies particularly appealing. As part of doing my due diligence, I’ve organized a portion of the better-known consumer/merchant-facing companies into some general buckets. Here’s how I see it:

Compiling this list, I noticed many of these products share certain traits. Notably:

  • Their interaction design is top-notch. They’ve honed in on their respective businesses, creating wonderfully simple account creation, onboarding, and conversion processes. Talk about focus.
  • Each employs a visual/motion design language that is simple, consistent, and tasteful. Such an attention to detail exudes professionalism and helps garner user trust. Building a digital experience that feels “safe” is no small task.
  • Compared to the existing major players in their respective markets, each has a brand and pitch that feels fresh — geared more towards younger, more tech-inclined consumers. This is no more evident than in their very names: the grandiose, old-timey, family names (“Wells Fargo”, “Goldman Sachs”, “Morgan Stanley”, etc) are long gone.

Perhaps most important, though, was the realization that these offerings are all incremental improvements on well-established product categories. I don’t use “incremental” with any negative connotations here — I just mean to reinforce that the core businesses weren’t born in the digital era: banking, mortgages, credit cards, etc all existed long before the modern consumer-friendly web.

What financial products/companies are internet-natives, then? It’s hard to say, but I think those in the “crowdfunding” space (e.g. Kickstarter, FundersClub, Gofundme) are compelling examples — they lack any real brick-and-mortar equivalent and have produced projects/products that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Another segment might be the “data providers” (Yodlee, Plaid, Standard Treasury), though I’d say their potential hasn’t been widely realized. Last, one could argue for cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin, Ripple), but I think of them more as digital-evolutions, even though they’re creating quite a stir.

Categorizations aside, I think this exercise highlights the enormous potential for startups in financial services. I can’t help but feel that we’re due for some generation-defining innovation.

Flushing a toilet, the right way

Note: This was first published on Medium in April 2014.

I’ve taken a pee and it’s time to flush. Here’s what I see:


It’s one of those fancy dual-flush toilets! So which button triggers the smaller flush? Without warning, the bathroom stall melts away and I’m sitting in a Kohler design review…

Designer A: Most people will be using our toilets to pee. So let’s make completing that process as easy as possible — the small-flush button should be big and easy to press. Fitt’s law in action, nice and simple.

Manager: Makes sense to me — get in, get out, get on with life.

Designer B: Hold on a sec. Let’s think of our users’ mental model: the small button represents small water and the big button equals big water, right? Who’s going to reasonably think: I want more water, let’s hit the small button. Big buttons have big consequences, that’s just how people think about this kind of thing.

Manager: Yeah, wait, that makes total sense. The size of the button reflects the size of the flush.

Designer A: So we’re going to make people press the small button most of the time? That doesn’t feel right…

The smell of Clorox welcomes me back to reality. And there, staring me down, mocking me with their simplicity, their elegance, are those two polished-chrome buttons. And I’ve got no clue which one to press. Solution? Indiscriminately smash one and rage-quit the bathroom, appreciating a bit more the somewhat-tasteless-but-absurdly-straightforward design of the XLERATOR on the way out.

I think there are two important lessons here:

  1. Urinals are the best. Ladies have it tough.
  2. A beautiful product is not always well designed. In many ways, that flusher is delightfully intuitive (the panel is highly visible, it’s obvious where the push-targets are, you can’t push it the wrong way), really quite attractive (a modern metallic finish, clean lines, simple geometric layout), and entirely accessible (no language barriers, usable by visually/physically impaired, child-friendly), yet I’m not actually sure how to use it correctly.

I can’t finish this rant with some useful, catch-all statement about how to design a great product. That kind of BS drives me nuts. So instead, a cheers: To all those hardworking people out there making products I use, but never stop to think about. Your work is much appreciated.