Interview by Jana Wardag
Photos by N26

January 02, 2019

N26 has redesigned banking to make it simple, fast and contemporary. Founded by Valentin Stalf and Maximilian Tayenthal in Berlin, N26’s growth has exploded since they launched in 2013, leading to several rounds of fundraising and a steady stream of new clients. They’re known for their no-nonsense approach to banking, an attitude that has attracted venture capitalists and financial powerhouses Peter Thiel and Li Ka-Shing as early investors.

Christian Hertlein Head of Design at N26 tells us more about work and life at this digital underdog within the banking landscape who became the role model for the best user experience in mobile banking in Europe and even worldwide. 

Christian Hertlein

Christian Hertlein

Head of Design

Who are you? What is your job at N26?

Hey, my name is Christian Hertlein, and I’m Head of Design at N26. This means I enable designers to create disruptive products from a holistic approach, incorporating strategies and frameworks from a design-minded perspective.

What inspired you to join N26?

After working for more than five years at IDEO, managing more short-term products, I wanted to switch to something where I’d have the ability to shape a single product long-term. There are two reasons for this.

Number one is the reflection of the work and impact you can have as a designer. It is important being able to step back and look at your work from a different angle.

We as designers are always looking for something new, want to improve and gain inspiration to move on, but reflection is sometimes not easy in a vibrant environment.

The second reason is N26’s age. As a young company, you have the chance to shape the understanding of design across the entire organization.

What do you tell your family and friends about N26 and what you’re doing there?

With N26 you can always have your bank in your pocket. Having it on your smartphone makes it very comfortable and easy to manage your financial life whenever you want and wherever you are.

What was your primary challenge as a designer when you started to work for N26

N26 already had a great user experience before I joined. And its brand was one that conveyed trust and simplicity.

So the question was, how do we improve what works and already there while evolving and iterating more on our value proposition. It’s apparently not enough to understand digital technology to generate a smooth user experience. Rather, what’s important is how we can shape the term “banking” in the future by truly serving user needs in a way traditional banks can’t.

The starting point was to cultivate a stronger understanding of design research. Creating an environment where we were able to plan, write discussion guides, train, actively conduct interviews, and synthesize and generate insights was key. Uncovering more important user needs and making the user, a representative of the people we want to serve, more present in our projects is necessary to foster a better connection, and mirror the diversity of opinions and needs.

The aim was to understand how we could change the way how people deal with their finances while understanding the importance of that in their daily life. For that, we wanted to look way beyond banking, identify patterns, and incorporate them into the app—to allow people to deal with their finances in a way that is similar to their daily smartphone usage.

In one design sprint setup, we worked to create hypotheses and assumptions for one project and to test them with feedback. Using this feedback we were able to create a product that will allow people to translate their mental accounting into something tangible. At the same time, our ideas of flexibility and simplicity inspired us to create a modular system which the user can fully customize.

“Design is much more than a visual skill set. It is a mindset on how we approach topics.”

Working this way helps our design team to understand its capabilities. And it also enables us to create a more overarching product vision, into which we can incorporate different ideas and roadmap milestones. Creating a holistic user experience is crucial to translating a complex topic like finance into a useable and understandable experience.

A vision project has different functions. It can help to create a fixed point where conversations are arranged around and still provides the room that can and need to be shaped as an incentive.

At the same time, it helps funnel ideas while composing a bigger picture out of these ideas to allow a holistic perspective — complete picture which is perceived by users.

To sum it up, this project helped a lot to showcase our design team’s skills and their role. Design is much more than a visual skill set. It is a mindset on how we approach topics.

And that even doesn’t mean it is exclusive to design. Our role as designers is to act inclusively, inspiring others by our work habits in the hopes of them adopting some of our processes.

How and when does the day in the office start? And when and how does it end?

You know, there are larks (early people) and owls (late people) — I belong to the second group. For me, it’s essential to start the day “right.” This means having a proper breakfast in the morning, reading my first emails, getting an overview of the day and listening to something that matches the mood — either music or a podcast.

I try not to repeat the structure of my working day. Ultimately, I’m looking for variation every day. That’s why it is quite difficult to say when it ends — sometimes earlier, sometimes later.

What is important though is to get my mind into a different mood. As a designer, you’re continually seeking and thinking. It doesn’t matter what you do and where you are, you’re always kind of busy in your head. Besides music, which is an essential part of my whole day, food and smaller projects are important for me. I get inspiration from it, but it does something different to my head and mood.

How does the company culture here differ from other companies?

Openness, willingness to learn, experimentation, and adaptation are values that immediately come to my mind. People here understand how important culture is and why it has a massive impact on the product in the end.

On the design side, this is what matters a lot — the empathy we bring to interviews with customers should also be reflected among co-workers. It’s sometimes as simple as getting together as a team several times a week. That fosters this culture. Even though we work in different departments, we still work collaboratively, ensuring we have a holistic picture and understanding of the impact we have.

What opportunities are there for employees to learn new things?

We inspire each other. Looking for diversity returns a broad range of perspectives, ideas, and knowledge. We learn a lot there. On top of that, we have a dedicated personal development budget. This allows designers to attend conferences, participate in courses and training, purchase books, and subscribe to online sources. We aim to share this knowledge collectively so that every individual can benefit from this.

“Making sure it’s a match on both sides is the best way to create a long-lasting relationship.”

What does the recruitment process at N26 look like?

The process starts way before we can call it recruitment. It is about identifying the internal needs, what is missing or would be beneficial to us from an organizational perspective. Even though this sounds simple, it is very difficult, as the right balance is important.

We aim to create a lean and fast recruitment process for both sides — the candidate and N26. We interview candidates to understand their perspective, mindset, and experience. In a discipline like design, there’s an essential balance between your visual portfolio, CV, and soft skills. It’s important that different perspectives are involved when hiring. Which is why all candidates go through several interviews with different team members. We want to make sure we have a complete picture and understanding of the candidate. At the same time, the candidate should meet as many people as possible to get an impression of who we are and how we work. Making sure it’s a match on both sides is the best way to create a long-lasting relationship.

“Another important aspect is to not reducing the design process to its result.”

What are the biggest mistakes you see people make when applying for a job at N26?

Sometimes candidates focus too much on their technical skills. We’re looking for people who have an excellent sense of design for sure, but soft skills are a necessity — we need empathetic people who can show understanding for our users and work in a collaborative environment.

Another important aspect is not to reduce the design process to its result. Communicating the process and the thinking behind your work is also very relevant. We look for people who can express this.

What gets you excited about a great candidate? What personal characteristics do you look for in an exceptional candidate?

Talking to people, getting to know them, and learning about new perspectives gets me excited. Personality is key, and every team needs a balance. You can build a team out of extroverts only — but this might lead to a lack of empathy. Diversity regarding personality, nationality, behavior, and mindset is what I’m looking for. I’ve seen the benefits of this diversity in the past and know how important this is for a design team in particular.

I am also very happy to be surprised when a new approach or a different mindset brings new perspective to a specific topic.

Why are you better at your job than your competitors?

Our advantage is not only the simplicity of our product. We understand people’s needs and translate this into the digital sphere, making finance more accessible.

What would you like to tell us about N26 that is not written down in your job descriptions?

Currently, I think we have six dogs running around in our office, and it creates a very relaxed atmosphere. People love to have them in meetings, and you’re welcome to bring yours as well. 🐶

Thank you so much, Christian!

We're super excited that N26 will be available in the US soon.