Smile Digital Banking

User Interviews / A/B Testing / Heuristic Evaluations / Rapid Prototyping

We are one with The Co‑operative Bank, and have been doing this internet banking thing since 1999. Our purpose was to make banking accessible, direct and fuss-free. We may look a little different now, but we remain dedicated to the ideas we were founded on.

Problem Statement

The purpose of this research report is to give insight and identify opportunities to help smile, a full-service digital-only bank from Manchester (UK), with two research questions.


Research Methods

Primary Research – Primary research consisted of 14 interviews, each lasting 45-60 minutes, mostly conducted via phone. Due to budget and time constraints, research participants were recruited through the team’s personal networks. The team is aware that this could introduce bias into the research.

Discussion Guide – The discussion guide was structured to allow exploration of the participants: upbringing, money management habits, attitude to discussing finances, perception of different banks, and expectations of ethics from a bank.

Interview Tools – Discussion guide, card sorting, wallet exercise, analogous inspiration, store walkthrough, and tombstone exercise.

Secondary Research – After collecting and organising the research findings, the team started sorting and clustering the collected data in order to identify patterns which could be formulated into insights. Opportunity areas were subsequently identified for brainstorming possible solutions.


Research Methods

Based on primary and secondary research, the team identified the following patterns and key findings


Based on these findings the team identified two key opportunity areas for smile to discuss and explore in the future:

• People do not trust banks.

• People lack confidence in making financial decisions.

Analogous experience as an eye-opening research method

Analogous inspiration is a method to gain a fresh perspective and derive new ideas, by applying another context to the problem at hand.

When looking for other professionals who face similar challenges as bankers in their everyday work, the team identified doctors, who are far more trusted than bankers, as an interesting analogy to explore.

Interviewing Dr. Mike, a trainee surgeon in the UK, gave crucial insight into how doctors create trust and confidence in the doctor-patient relationship. Looking beyond the banking context for analogous inspiration was crucial in order to validate and understand key themes emerging from other primary research.



  • Complex professions which can appear mysterious to customers or patients.
  • A specialised language which can come across as indecipherable jargon.
  • High stakes due to dealing with people’s financial security and health.
  • Emotional interactions with customers and patients due to the high stakes.


Opportunity Area #1 

Build trust and empathetic relationships between smile and their customers.

People trust people, not banks. 

When facing big financial decisions or even problems, most people would rather ask family and friends for help than their bank.

“There are no good guys in banking.” – Pete, User (39)

“I tend to approach my brother for advice because he understands me at a personal level and is the main bread-winner in his family.”  – Estella, Student (23)


Bankers have (and enjoy) elite status. 

Many people feel that they are not on eye-level with bankers, because of their attitude and appearance.

“Bankers still wear suits when going to work, which creates a natural barrier between them and their customers. From my experience, most are quite aware of that.” – Johanna, Expert (29)

People feel that banks speak a foreign language.

People are overwhelmed by banking jargon – they feel like they don’t speak the same language, which naturally creates a level of mistrust.

“Financial advisors often overestimate the public’s financial knowledge, since they are talking about financial matters and use jargon on a daily basis. But often they also lack empathy on how much regular people understand about finance.” – Johanna / Expert (29)

“I wouldn’t tell a patient ‘you have cholecystitis’, I’d say ‘your gallbladder is inflamed’. Then I’d explain where the gallbladder is, what it does, what’s gone wrong, what the options are, and what I treatment I recommend”– Dr Mike, Trainee Surgeon

Opportunity Area #2

Enable people to feel confident about managing money and making financial decisions.

People feel that finance and banking are too complex.

Some people feel that they need to study maths to understand finance and avoid talking to their banks in order to not expose themselves.

“My husband goes to the bank because he knows what he’s talking about. I don’t even go with him, I feel embarrassed when I cannot follow.” – Lydia, User (32)


Lack of Tangibility.

By moving towards a cashless society, people fear that with loss of physical cash (Mulders, 2019), understanding and having control over money will disappear with it.

“There is no way to pay for food with cash in the school canteen anymore, we have to pay by a QR code. That is kind of scary”– Estella, Student (23)

Handling money is stressful for most people.

For many people, checking their account balance is a nerve-wracking endeavour, as they don’t always keep track of their spendings.

“Everyone around me is always very stressed about money, they never know how much they have left.”– Anna, Extreme User (24)

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