Back in the day many of us traveled to conferences, business meetings, and even for weekend breaks in other cities and countries. Sometimes we might plan ahead, while at other times introducing elements of chance added a little spice to the visit. “Take me to a good hotel!” could result in many different interpretations by an airport taxi driver. On one rain soaked layover night in San Francisco I asked for an ‘inexpensive’ venue. The resulting $20 flophouse I was delivered to has lived in my memory far more vividly than the 5-star Taiwan hotel I was resident in by the following night.
So in the spirit of virtual travel adventure, let’s hop into a virtual cab waiting outside a virtual Schiphol International Airport, and ask the driver to take us on a tour of 5 Amsterdam UX-UI design agencies. Does flophouse or 5-star luxury await us? Here goes…
The subjective review
Of course the journey is taken with light intentions, and don’t regard it in any way as definitive. This is a subjective enquiry. What’s clear however is that since Britain left the European Union via ‘Brexit’, the balance of Fintech power has shifted away from London, benefitting the Netherlands in general, and Amsterdam in particular. This huge boost to Netherlands-based financial services, for existing Fintechs and rapid startups, plus increasingly savvy banks, means that there is – presumably – a corresponding uplift in Fintech-tailored UX-UI services. But how custom-built for the Fintech sector are they really? Amsterdam Fintech Week, and Holland Fintech demonstrate that Fintech is alive and well in the Netherlands. However a question worth asking is whether the digital agencies yet view this activity as an area worth addressing per se, or are Fintechs ‘just another client’?
Getting to the Essense of things
As we’re departing the taxi stand at Schiphol airport, let’s check in first with the work of Essense, which numbers the airport among its clients, developing, ‘A customer experience vision for commercial touch-points for the entire passenger journey across channels.’ Using live interviews with the travelling public, and journey mapping – both literally and as a tool for understanding – Essense has helped bring commercial and customer experience objectives together, linking them to KPIs, to ensure team-wide focus. So we’re looking at a Customer Experience focus for the airport, rather than necessarily User Experience. But how are Essense dealing with the areas of Banking and Fintech?
Onboarding is an area of increasing focus for many Fintech UX design agencies, but normally in terms of innovative methods of recruiting customers and with corresponding KYC assurances. In the onboarding area Essense has been involved in a collaboration with Dutch multinational, Rabobank for the onboarding of employees. In the words of Rens Freriks, Head of Employability for the bank, the results of the work are that, “The experience map provided us with an overview of employee insights that enabled us to collaborate between departments. Essense then facilitated the prioritisation and implementation by involving relevant stakeholders to deliver improvements in the end-to-end employee journey.”
Digital UX Design comes into focus with the work done by Essense for ING, another Netherlands-based banking giant, and one of the first banks to move into ‘banking without having to go to a bank,’ back in the 1990s. Here Essense developed CX Design for Wholesale Banking, mapping out customer needs, and using those insights to spot new opportunities, and design new service concepts.
Essense, which is also based in Eindhoven, offers a Service Design approach which goes from ‘Purpose to Solution through a collaborative process, involving you and your customers’. The firm is also big on training and operates the Essense Academy to help teams better handle customer-centric collaboration.
On the People/Tech continuum, Essense is big at the people processes and investigation end, as well as the implementation of digital solutions, with UX, UI and Visual Designers working up to the interface level.
Clients include PostNL – ‘Building the future of delivery in, to and from the Benelux’, and Publish One. Here Essense delivered, ‘A digital service that offers simplicity to authors, and structures complexity to editors and publishers, making the publishing tool more accessible for all user roles.’
Essense also numbers the European Investment Bank – the bank owned by all the EU member States – among its clients for UX and UI design and implementation. That, I suspect, is one heavyweight customer to have on your client list!
Deuxers for UXers
And so from the west of Amsterdam, let’s hop back into our virtual taxi and take a ride towards the center, passing the Van Gogh museum and Rijksmuseum on the way, and coming to a stop at Deuxers, close to the River Amstel. The company offers, ‘Full spectrum UX and UI design services ranging from user research and developing a digital strategy. Mapping customer journeys and creating interaction designs. To clickable prototypes and design systems that we test with real users for validation. And ensure a smooth UI asset handover your developers will love.’ OK, all clear there (although I do question that truncated ‘telegraph’ style of writing website copy!)
As with Essense, and indeed any design agency working in the space, Deuxers observe users in the field, ‘in their natural environment’. Presumably with the pandemic this has become much more of a challenge, and I wonder what strategies are being developed for remote observation and interface with users.
Years ago it seemed that every design and advertising agency sported the IBM logo among their client listing, and now like Essense, Deuxers also number ING Bank as a client. This probably brings great cachet in the region, especially in the Netherlands. Are Deuxers therefore Banking and Fintech focussed? Well, they do cite CarePay as a client, with its health payment wallet, but there’s also a wider client spread with airline KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and location specialists TomTom in the mix.
So I get the impression that they’re a successful agency who are generalists. That’s fine, and I understand that there’s no such thing as a “bad client”, in that there are always new challenges to deal with, every time a new sector is opened up. To be able to take on any brief is a great strength, while at the same time the learning curve for each new client must necessarily be quite steep.
It’s always interesting to see what a company says it is not, and the Deuxers website spells this out: ‘Not another design agency – We are a company of senior user experience designers that go beyond the creation of wireframes and pixel-perfect designs. We are the UX specialists you call in to join your team to tackle your greatest design challenges and provide your users with the best user experience possible.’ Considering the assertion of Deuxers being ‘Not another design agency,’ I must say I’m attracted by the look of the website: Colorful, graphic and ‘arty’.
Just up the Gradient…
Much as it would be fun to drop in to the nearby Heineken brewing museum, time and pandemic closures don’t allow it, so let’s continue with the tour by taking the short hop alongside the Nieuwe Heren canal, to The Gradient. In smart, open plan offices (the company also has a base in Lviv, Ukraine), The Gradient promises, ‘Everything you need to design a successful digital product’. I’m immediately drawn to the concept of a Minimum Lovable Product which seems so much more relatable-to than the familiar MVP concept.
Two financial clients stand out from The Gradient’s list, which also includes Daimler and Qatar Airways:
PEX is a Prepaid Corporate Card and Expense Management Platform for which The Gradient provided redesign of the business debit cards management platform. Saudi Fransi Capital is a financial services provider offering investment banking, asset management and debt and equity research, for which The Gradient was engaged to define and design the next generation investment platform. Other projects include the redesign of a fantasy football game, a smart city lighting management ecosystem, and a grocery shopping app for Swan, in the UAE.
Specifically in the Fintech space, the company worked with Jaja Finance to develop a new type of mobile-first credit card experience. As Jaja co-founder Kyrre Riksen reports, “I’ve been very pleased with The Gradient’s ability to challenge me.”
Other challenges have encompassed merging Jaja with the UK’s Post Office credit card, and being the consumer credit card issuer for Bank of Ireland UK and the AA (The Automobile Association). Jaja ‘recognise how people live their lives and its goal is to give back control to the customer. More than a Fintech, Jaja is part of the sharing economy. Finally consumer finance is catching up with not only how people access services, but share their finances in a community based app platform.’
Another client of The Gradient, Michael Rossman, CEO of MachFast which offers an app for free Company Registration in the UK comments, “We believe this team (at The Gradient) is Top 1% – and can easily compete with global and well established on-shore players.”
I get the sense that here is a Netherlands UX agency which seems comfortable with looking beyond the bounds of its native territory, and has probably benefited enthusiastically from the Brexit fallout.
Turning the Page
But let’s turn the page, and go visit This Page to see what the story is there. Situated in the De Wallen area of Amsterdam, in what is sometimes called the ‘Red Light’ district, This Page was founded in 2009. The company says that, ‘Before creating anything, we analyse and learn. This ensures we fully understand your needs, and we make the right choices. Our area of expertise covers digital design, digital production and digital marketing. You can find us at the intersection of creativity and technology.’
This is further expanded by the statement that Creativity means the right ideas, while Technology means the right tools.
So far so good, and what about the client list? Well, it’s typically impressive – as with all of the Agencies on this breakneck tour around Amsterdam. Consumer facing companies seem to dominate, with big names such as Nike, JBL and Bose featuring, along with Volvo, Timberland, and McDonald’s. The latter project involved translating the burger company’s placemats into a music experience! The Nike work provided a styling tool, and the Volvo project created, ‘A network of digital out-of-home screens, each showing a map with the real-time location of cars ready for a test drive. Via a QR-code or geo-targeted display campaign, prospects are directed to a mobile website where cars can be requested at any time with the tap of a button.’
At this point I’m starting to ‘get’ the assertion by The Page that they stand at the meeting point of Creativity and Technology. There’s something slightly edgy and ‘out there’ about some of the projects they’ve been involved in. But maybe that’s just demonstrating my own bias and tastes. Even work for ABN Amro Bank – the third largest bank in the Netherlands – steps away from the more ‘normal’ template with the creation of a ‘Streamstore’ enabling a family-run cheese shop to become open to the world.
BB and bees
It seems suitable to leave The Page with a story of that Netherlands speciality, cheese, but let’s make a final visit to ‘a technology driven design studio’, Bakken & Bæck. Situated a little to the north of De Wallen, with an expansive harbor view, Bakken & Bæck are also to be found in Oslo, Amsterdam, Bonn and London, and do work aiming ‘to have an impact on a global scale.’ Nevertheless, one of the first projects which catches my eye is the more homely – and very stylish – digital platform that makes it easy for anyone anywhere to create a sophisticated sanctuary for a vital species on the planet: bees. BB (as they are known) certainly walk the talk here, and share the rooftop of their Oslo office with around 100,000 bees!
The company was founded in 2011 by Johan Bakken and Tobias Bæck to, ‘define, design and develop all things digital.’ Among their accolades they include being listed in Fast Company’s World’s Most Innovative Companies 2020, and the Financial Times 1,000 of Europe’s Fastest Growing Companies.
In the Finance sphere, BB have teamed with 0x to redesign their visual identity and online presence, powering the continued launch into being the bedrock of a new financial infrastructure. 0x (that’s ‘zero-X’) is, “One of the most ambitious projects to come out of the blockchain space. Their mission is to become the fundamental exchange infrastructure for a new financial system and create a tokenized world where all value can flow freely.” I wonder how much BB ‘got under the hood’ of the 0x offering, but they certainly created a stylish and distinctive look.
Another very-definitely Fintech involvement is a long term BB relationship with crypto exchange site Coinbase which recently held an IPO. BB developed end-to-end design of the Coinbase wallet and Custody offering.
Back in the cab
Wrapping up my quick tour of a handful of Amsterdam agencies, I have to admit that my review can only scratch the surface, at best. And yet, like those Lonely Planet guides, I’ve traveled solo to places to help others follow there. Did I mention Hike One, Capitola, Tapptitude, or a host of others? Sorry, no, but you can find them, all providing the highest quality digital design services. Did I mention the scene in Rotterdam, or Utrecht? – No, not possible on this short trip. But as I head back to the virtual airport (home in time for tea!) I think of the general approach of each agency I have dropped in on. As a given they all seem very aware of the need for research, and then bring various levels of creativity to the solutions they develop. Certainly there are professional approaches which are second to none, but is there Fintech specialization? At first sight it seems there isn’t.
My most in-depth knowledge of a specifically Fintech-oriented UX-UI agency comes from Holland Fintech member, Ergomania. Although based outside the country, they have done notable work for TreasurUp by Rabobank, and are also active in neighboring Belgium, with a UX Strategy designed for BNP Paribas Fortis in Brussels. In fact in another interesting loop, this 2013 work was together with Essense, who I dropped in on at the start of this tour.
Just as some of the Dutch agencies mentioned here look outside their own national borders, so too have Ergomania specialised in nearshoring – providing geographically close services, at a lower cost than in the home country. You won’t find Ergomania doing particularly trendy stuff about sports shoes or online football… and no mention of beekeeping at all, but you will see a specific in-depth knowledge of Banking and Fintech. As with some of the Dutch agencies mentioned here, Ergomania also partners with others, such as IBT Consulting, and SmartX Solutions, so that projects can be delivered end-to-end, from concept to IT execution.
And of course there’s UX-UI Design… but that comes with the territory.
Oh, and speaking of finance, can anyone lend me some virtual euros to tip my very patient virtual taxi driver?