How we transformed a bank card into a lifestyle product
Our thoughts on physical card design in an era of digital products
Being a physical product designer at N26 means developing products that create recurring, emotional connections with our users. We integrate all aspects of form, tactility and visual appeal, optimising them to create the best possible user experience. How successfully we are able to do this plays an integral role in the success of that product in the market.
In 2017 I had the opportunity to design N26 Metal, the first contactless metal card in Europe. I’d like to walk you through the process of how we transformed a bank card into a lifestyle product and the learnings along the way.
The decision to introduce N26 Metal was rooted in the research from our N26 Black product. The success of N26 Black showed an emerging, affluent market segment who associate with higher-end lifestyle brands, travelled often and were interested in the peace of mind that premium products provide. We felt confident that we could create an elevated product that incorporated the needs and interests of this sub-audience.
While our product and research teams worked to create the product offering I set out to create the card itself. Card design wasn’t a priority in the finance sector, and with the rise in mobile payments, people hardly considered that there was something more to be experimented with. We took this as an opportunity, a physical connection to a fully digital product. The N26 card is our most tangible brand touch point and our goal was to elevate this experience creating a more intentional, multifaceted product offering.
In order to deliver a memorable design that is functional, manufacturable and within budget, it is crucial that we communicate our vision with all major stakeholders across the product life-cycle. Setting up the project for success required a visit to a metal card production plant to fully understand processes, limitations and innovative developments.
Researching financial institutions proved to be unsuccessful in gathering premium design ideas. Instead, we collected physical products that our target audience resonated with.
We looked especially at products an individual would interact with on a daily basis, forming a recurring brand connection. We then separated these objects into the categories of “Materiality”, “Functionality” and “Accessibility”.
Materiality spoke to the tactility of the products, the overall visceral appeal. Functionality, rather, looked at mandatory elements and how they are incorporated into the design. Lastly, accessibility focused 100% on the user and how design can improve the usability of the product. This was an important part of the design process. It helped us to understand the desired tactility, level of detail and behavioural functionality we looked to accomplish.
Iterations & Challenges
Testing physical products proved to be more difficult than digital. We looked for ways to produce rapid iterations, bypassing the need to go through the entire physical production process. In the end, we experimented with over 50 designs both on-site and digitally. Throughout the process we continued to come back to the understanding that “premium” lies in the details. We knew if we could get these small details correct we would make the N26 Metal card extremely memorable.
One of these details is the card finish. We went through multiple sample rounds to achieve a matte, black effect that still allows light to bounce off its surface without the unwanted green tint stainless steel often produces.
Secondly, for the card reverse we worked to screen print complementary colour tints instead of using an “off-the-shelf” solution. We worked closely with our manufacturer to guarantee the desired, premium result we knew would be important to our metal customers.
Making the Design Decision
Ultimately, the final design decision reflected our core values. N26’s promise to “simplify banking” was translated into our most premium physical product. Everything that wasn’t needed was removed. We became the first bank card to place the name, phone number and personal identification numbers on the reverse of the card creating a clean, unobtrusive final result.
Every time you pay with N26 Metal you are making a statement. The end product is 3 times heavier than a standard card and features a stainless steel front with a double hit of black varnish producing a subtle, matte effect. A clear protective coating helps to protect the card, extending the designs clean surface from unwanted scratches. Its successional product additions; N26 Quartz Rose and Slate Grey also maintained the desired aesthetic becoming, together, Europe’s first metal card portfolio.
Working closely with Brand designer Greer Chapman we designed an elevated packaging concept along with a full N26 Metal branding proposal. The importance of the brand experience and card product coming together made for a strong, cohesive product launch.
At N26 our designers are encouraged to explore as many options as possible to get the best solution. The release of a minimalist black card did not go without failures, iteration and exploration.
For me, the number one learning came through pushing myself to create as many options as possible, even when I felt that I had landed on the best solution. As designers we can always come back to that solution, but without continuing to iterate we might miss out on a design we failed to explore. Being messy has always been extremely hard for me and quick design iteration, random ideas and failure was a skill I needed to practice to get the best possible result.
N26 Metal has been in the market for over a year and the results have been exceptional. We continue to evolve our card products, understanding that there is a irreplaceable connection to the physical in an era of digital design.
If you have ideas, questions on our process, or feedback we would love to hear your thoughts :)