How to Build a Bank That Solves Real Customer Problems?

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Paula Sztainwald

Jan 17, 2022 • 8 min read
Insights into Product Management and Building the Bank of Tomorrow

Product management in the competitive world of challenger banks is not just about packing as many new features into an app as possible.

For Northmill Bank, it’s all about directly serving their customers’ needs and solving real problems.

Northmill Bank is a Swedish bank founded in 2006 with the primary aim of helping customers improve their financial lives by helping them track, improve, and control their financial health in one single place.

Helen Björk, Product Manager at Northmill Bank, joins Disruption Talks to discuss product management in banking, Northmill Bank’s development processes, and how it relates to the future of banking and the wider industry.

Paula Sztainwald: Can you tell us how you came to become a Product Manager?

Helen Björk: I’ve been a Product Manager at Northmill Bank for about a year and a half now. The journey to product management is never obvious, but I think looking back, every choice I’ve made has really led up to this. Even in roles that were not specifically product management, it all had something to do with it.

I had a job during my university studies that involved working super closely with customers and getting instant feedback. This made it easier to change the product you’d sold already to keep the customer happy, which was essentially product management. After that, I started working at Benify, a benefits platform, as a Business Developer and eventually Product Lead before moving to Northmill Bank.

What’s a product manager role like at Northmill Bank?

At Northmill Bank, we received our banking license in 2019, so that’s been a big part of the journey so far. We’re still quite small, even as a bank, so it means as a product manager, you have to do everything, including helping the product teams and engineers, understanding and solving problems, and also aligning with management and customer care.

It's much easier when you're in a smaller company because you can take this responsibility on a broader level than you would with a bigger company.

As part of the payments team, could you share more about what your team takes care of?

When we started, we had a card initially, but we realized we had to revisit our approach to giving support and building really personal products for customers. This led us to change our strategy to what we’re working on today.

Over the past year, we’ve been working on a new debit card which has been really exciting because we were working with a blank sheet of paper a year ago. We’re hoping to launch it early next year, so we’re currently piloting it.

Can you tell us what makes the card special?

At Northmill Bank, our vision is to improve people’s financial lives. We want to help regular customers that the bigger banks may not want, those with less capital, or those who are just not interested in finance, to ensure it’s the best product out there for our customers. One way we help is with interest. We ensure that finance has low interest, but savings accounts have at least 1% interest. There are also no annual fees for our account or card.

Can you shed some light on the product development process?

We’re the only product team in the company working with both an app product and also the physical card, so it’s been really interesting to work with both.

There are so many layers of product development both in the physical and digital products.

We’re now in our third iteration of printing cards, so we’ve been doing it in small batches and learning what customers like and don’t like. It’s really agile product development.

We have a card made of recycled plastic, so that’s really interesting for us, and there will be more environmentally friendly options in the future.

How do you incorporate customer insights into product development?

There’s so much information from Visa and MasterCard around payment behavior and understanding the customer. We also do our own analysis on what type of user problems we need to solve, so we created the panel. We have a card panel that goes out to customers every couple of weeks with questions about different features and their payment behavior, so we can prioritize our roadmap.

We also have customer interviews to go even deeper into it and a customer center that’s a goldmine for any product development.

It’s where we see customers call in with real problems, not just the ones you ask about, so we know exactly what they need and want.

How do you make decisions on what to include in a new product?

When we get feedback around a product, we can prioritize what to work on. If there’s a feature that customers really want, we need to see if enough people want it to validate it, which we do through surveys. Then if this feature helps us with our long or short-term goals, we can prioritize it. That way, we’re not spending time on things that will cause us to lose sight of our main goals.

How do you still experiment with product development in such a highly regulated area as banking?

This is something we struggled with in the beginning. It’s hard to scope the full product and figure out all the other tasks we needed to do for the launch. We really changed our approach, especially after the customer interviews we did. We realized that the most important thing was simply to be able to make a payment, so we slimmed everything else down and focused on the basics.

The next step was to say, now have payments working, how can we make the app work as well for our customers? We made sure that we were improving what was really important instead of focusing on lots of different features.

Experimenting is possible, but you need to get to production as fast as possible. That’s when you see real customer data.

What do you think is the next big thing in banking?

With so many fintech companies coming up, we’ve seen new companies launch Bitcoin applications and new types of financing. However, we still don’t see this layer of personalization and intelligence that customers want. There’s still room to disrupt banking even more and make sure you’re helping your customer along the way.

If you had a magic wand and could give every 12-year-old in the world a new skill, what would it be?

I’d be a bad product manager if I didn’t say something about banking. There’s a lot to learn when it comes to saving money, credit, and understanding personal finance. With physical money becoming less popular, it means no real money to put in the piggy bank for children. We need a way to teach them to understand money in a digital way as well.

This discussion is part of our Disruption Talks recordings, where we invite experts to share their insights on winning innovation strategies, the next generation of disruptors, and scaling digital products. To get unlimited access to this interview and more insights from industry experts, sign up here.
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