🇯🇴 : National Microfinance Bank of Jordan (Service Design)



At the start of 2016 my colleague from Continuum Stefano Bianchini and I were staffed on a project with the brief of designing an app that “improves the experience” for customers of the Jordanian National Microfinance Bank (NMB). This was a classic service design project in an emerging market, at an organization without any prior exposure to service design’s methods and philosophy.
Jordan is a country of approximately 10 million people with Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Palestine as its neighbors. Estimates are that between 15-20% of Jordanians have formal bank accounts, and while national literacy statistics are high according to UNICEF, in speaking with local managers of NMB branches they reported anecdotally that a community’s level of illiteracy (to the extent that customers needed guidance from a bank employee or friend) could be as high as 50%. While 95% of Jordanians own a smartphone, only 38% of those phones are smartphones.

Our clients were focused upon ways that a service could make it simpler for their their customers to repay their loans each month. Our proposed service was a combination of physical and digital touchpoints that enabled this in two different ways: 1) flexibility in payment location, and 2) flexibility in payment amount/time.

Location flexibility:

In speaking with customers, many of the bank’s initial assumptions around the inconvenience of making monthly payments were confirmed. When clients foresaw that they would be unable to make it to the bank to pay on time, they would engage in sometimes risky behaviors to ensure that their payments were collected on time. These behaviors would range from giving their loan repayment to an employee of the local NMB branch who lived nearby, to giving the money to a friend or relative who was headed into town and would be passing by the branch for them to make the repayment on the customer’s behalf.
To solve for this, the service we prototyped (and that the bank is presently collaborating with third-party developers to make real) allows local, trusted merchants within rural communities to accept repayment on the bank’s behalf, and to store the money in a secure place until they had collected a sufficient amount for the local NMB branch to send an employee around to collect the money.

Amount/time flexibility:

Equally important as lacking the time to make monthly repayments, loan customers also said they frequently lacked the resolve to repay as well – particularly when there was so much competition for their money at a given moment. Regardless of the resolve to repay a client could have at the start of the month, it was impossible to guess what needs would arise that month that would undermine that resolve – from a relative asking to borrow money, to an illness requiring a visit to a clinic, to the need to host and feed a visiting relative coming from afar.
To solve for this, we “borrowed” a behavior that we saw the most successful microloan customers using to ensure that they stayed on track to repay: the “hassalah”, or “money box”. Regardless whether customers were saving to make a repayment to their community savings group (which many loan customers were a member of, in addition to holding a microloan at any given moment) or for their loan from NMB, the behavior of placing a small amount of money into the money box each day helped them stay on track through the many temptations to spend that would inevitably arise over the course of a typical month. We digitized the Jordanian context’s proven-and-familiar savings behavior by creating an “e-hassalah” within our service’s app, wherein customers are able to make repayments in an amount of their choosing at NMB’s merchant-partners in their community. Using NMB’s service, customers can make a repayment of any denomination they choose at a merchant they trust, and the amount they repaid will be reflected in the customer’s app on their phone. By letting customers choose the amount and frequency with which they repay, we made it simple for customers to make many smaller payments towards their large monthly loan repayment.
Together, these two elements of flexibility that NMB’s new service will offer support each other to create a radically more accessible way for NMB’s microloan customers to both save money and make their monthly repayments. By digitizing a familiar financial concept of the hassalah, and incorporating the act of repayment into loan customers’ daily habits of shopping at local merchants, we hope that NMB’s new service will radically lower the bar to savings and loan repayment and set NMB apart from its competitors as a tech-forward, customer-centric microfinance bank focused upon customer convenience.

This project was presented at the 2016 Global Service Design Conference in Amsterdam.

A walkthrough of the wireframes we tested as part of our service enactment. Animated using Keynote.

password: Fedor4

Role + Responsibilities

As a Design Strategist, my role included planning and running design research, facilitating the analysis and synthesis process within our team, and creating the proper fidelity of digital and physical touchpoints to spark constructive conversations with potential users around what they like and what they would improve about the service. I also assisted Stefano, the project lead, in managing the relationship with the client.

Planning and leading field research

  • 16 generative research interviews
  • 12 evaluative research interviews
  • recruited fixer/translator and local guide for field research
  • managed the translation of research stimuli from English into Arabic
  • leading and capturing the team’s conversation around the debriefing of each interview
  • designed separate research protocols and stimuli for users with both smartphones and feature phones
  • designed an interview flow that accounts for and respects the limited literacy of some respondents

Giving physical and digital form to the observations from the field in the form of prototypes

     – assisted with creating wireframes of the app (Adobe Illustrator)
     – created an on-phone mobile prototype using InVision

     – managed the translation of digital prototypes from English into Arabic

Supporting the project lead in managing the client relationship with National Microfinance Bank

     – designing presentations, helping to plan, and co-running the client workshop
     – linking prototype screens together and creating a “wireframe walkthrough” to demonstrate the flow of the app to the client (Keynote)
     – creating a site tree / app flow diagram to help guide the developer through the structure of the app
     – helping write, copy edit, and lay out the “User Stories” book
     – designing presentations, helping to plan, and co-running the final client presentation to the board of directors of the bank
For planning and running research, I drew upon both the knowledge of Jordan that our team had gained through subject matter experts and secondary research and my experience running projects in other emerging markets to facilitate the conversation with the client around scheduling and carrying out field research. I consider obtaining client buy-in around the research process as a precondition to success, and agree with design researcher Steve Portigal when he says, “A standard predictor for success [in user research] is how much the client can join the fieldwork”.

Field Preparation

After the project kick-off call with the NMB’s leadership, Stefano and I got to work designing an early draft of a service blueprint based upon how our clients had described the loan application process to us. We did this to begin internally talking about the different stages of the service with the goal of helping our client think more holistically about their service as a series of coordinated touchpoints that a customer experiences individually, rather than on the basis of department boundaries or job descriptions and responsibilities.
Upon showing this early service blueprint of the loan lifecycle to the internal project team at NMB and making corrections to it based upon their feedback, we began discussing with them where they had heard of painpoints, and where we imagined there could be room for improvements in how their service was delivered. In addition to discussions with the client, we also brainstormed internally to generate some ideas for potential service-improving offerings for the loan lifecycle.
a slide from a presentation showing a sampling of our “idea cards”

After generating around 36 of these early-stage ideas, we worked with a talented illustrator on staff in Continuum’s Milan studio, Giulia Baldassari, to give a low-fidelity, open-ended visual form to each one. Once each idea had a compelling visual, we shared the ideas in a subsequent call to the client to get their feedback on them. During these conversations with the NMB team, we tried to “rebrief” and push back on the assumption that having an app would solve all of their customers’ painpoints across the loan lifecycle.

an example of an “idea card”, with the lower-fidelity English version on one side, and the higher-fidelity Arabic version facing the respondent

After these conversations with the NMB team around the role of “digital” and how it was critical to supplement any improvements to their existing digital offerings by designing in support from accompanying non-digital/physical touchpoints, we got buy-in from the NMB team to discuss with their customer idea-cards that contained improvements to the loan process’s touchpoints beyond solely digital offerings. Now that we had obtained the client’s buy-in on most of the cards, we began translating them into Arabic (colloquial Jordanian dialect) with the intention of using these idea-cards as stimuli during the course of our interviews with customers.

Exploratory Research

Before planning which sorts of loan customers we should interview, we had a conversation about what our budget would allow us to do in terms of how we ran research. After some deliberation and conversation, we eventually decided that the project would be well-suited to running what design researcher Jan Chipchase calls a “Pop-up Studio”. This approach to field research placed us in the midst of the context we are researching, both physically and philosophically; instead of renting rooms in one of Amman’s many corporate hotels, we both acknowledged that we could learn far more about the context in which our proposed service would have to function if we immersed ourselves in a local neighborhood instead. To do this, we used Airbnb to rent out a floor of an old villa on top of the hill known as Jabal Al Weibdeh in one of the oldest sections of Amman.

the main workspace and synthesis wall at our pop-up studio

We stocked it with most of the things that a design studio anywhere need to function – Post-its and Sharpies, butcher paper, a color printer and plenty of paper and spare ink, portable external hard drives (We’ve found that Samsung SSD’s are uniquely well-suited to this, being both incredibly portable and having incredibly fast transfer speeds), portable speakers for late-night design sessions, and, of course, some of the local libations (we found ourselves returning to the products of a recently-founded Jordanian brewery, Karakale).

In planning our interviews, we worked closely with local branch managers across the country to recruit the optimal mix of respondents. Our exploratory round of interview respondents were sampled to reflect the demographic and socioeconomic of the bank’s clientele. We also selected as diverse a selection of loan categories (agricultural, small business, school tuition, etc.), and spoke with respondents both in their homes and at their businesses (in several cases, they were one in the same), and across a mix of rural and urban settings. To both test the flow of our interviews and to get some opinions of people who were not direct customers of our client, we also used our fixer/interpreter to recruit people with microloans from banks other than NMB for our initial “beta” interviews.

the site of our first “beta” interview, a storage area above a restaurant

The core team that attended every interview consisted of Stefano, myself, and our fixer/interpreter. Outside of us, we strove to include one employee of NMB – sometimes a manager from the local bank branch, other times a member of the executive team or our internal client from the bank. The interview would always begin with an introduction from the local NMB manager, who would then leave us after making the introduction and building rapport with the respondent. During each interview, we strove to emphasize that we were not NMB employees, that their answers would not be getting any NMB employees into trouble, and that we were most interested in hearing their story about they applied for, obtained, and used their loan.

one respondent’s loan journey, in card form

After loan customers walked us through the journey of their current or most recent microloan, we presented our series of color-illustrated “idea-cards” to them. These cards were the same idea-cards that we initially presented to the NMB team, only since that conversation with our clients we had eliminated the ideas that were deemed irrelevant and brought the remaining ideas  up to a higher fidelity. Giulia had created higher fidelity color illustrations for each idea, and we proceeded to print them on to durable plastic cards so they would survive the rigors of the field. Finally, we had them double-side printed with the given idea shown in English on one side and translated into Arabic on the other. This way, the English-speaking interview facilitator would always be able to see which card they were holding up in a given moment, as several of the illustrations on the cards were quite similar.

The remainder of the interview following the discussion of the customer’s loan journey was devoted to teasing out the customer’s nuanced opinions around the open-ended idea-cards. What did they think of this idea? What would they change about it? Why wouldn’t it work? Would you trust it? If we had failed to build strong rapport with the respondent at this point, their answers to what they thought of each potential idea would not be nearly as useful as if they trusted us, so building a relationship with the respondents before we began introducing the idea-cards was critical.


One key element of preparing for our field research was designing and acquiring interview incentives. While we typically compensate respondents with cash or gift cards, in this instance both our client and local fixer told us that it’d be out of step with local norms to thank respondents with cash. After much discussion and perusal of local grocery store shelves with our fixer, we settled on the above selection. We wanted things that seemed luxurious (rather than cheaper daily necessities like rice, which respondents could see as demeaning to receive), that would mostly keep well (hence the dried fruits) and taste good. Also, if you’ve never before heard of Vimto, you aren’t alone.

Analysis & Synthesis

Following each interview, we conducted an abbreviated debriefing of the preceding interview, typically in the car ride to the next interview or headed home. The whole team collectively pitched in to fill out the “debriefing form”, a simple template with space to capture observations about respondents’ homes and behavior, respondents’ perspectives on various financial matters, a timeline of their history of their involvement with NMB and microloans, and any higher-level themes that we saw emerging across interviews.

One key feature of our “pop-up studio” that our team would have been critically lacking if we had chosen to stay in a hotel was the abundance of wall space in a common area we had available for pinning up photos, debriefings, and butcher paper for affinity diagramming observations and identifying emerging themes from our interviews. Our accommodation’s center of gravity (where we were naturally drawn for working/eating/talking) happened to be around a large table, so we dedicated the entire adjacent wall to holding photographs of respondents, notes from our group debriefings of interviews, and plenty of other thoughts and observations. We found it very helpful to have nearly constant exposure to the current results of our interviews while we worked at our table, and took advantage of the low barriers to adding more material on to our “Respondent Wall” while we organized photos, typed emails to colleagues in Milan and Boston, and ate our meals.

After successfully completing our exploratory interviews, we returned from Jordan back to Continuum’s Milan studio to begin deeper analysis of our findings from the first round of interviews. We spent two weeks immersed in the data, as we sought to translate our findings from field interviews into the characteristics and features that would come to define the prototype of our application.

In addition to defining how our prototype would look and work, we also identified another notable way to add value for the client. We noticed that the NMB team reacted incredibly favorably to the presentation of our initial findings before we departed Jordan for Milan. In addition, as word spread through the bank about the (unprecedented) sort of research we were conducting in the field, our internal clients were inundated by requests of others to join on the interviews so they too could learn how to create services that resonated with clients. While we knew it wouldn’t be practical to bring a dozen employees of NMB along to each interview, we still wanted to give them an inside look into how our team ran field research. To do this, we settled upon creating a physical book out of all of our exploratory interviews, where we shared how we planned who we would interview, the questions we asked, and the variety of responses across our many different respondents. In creating the book, we hoped to capture some of the less tangible aspects of field research that experienced designers take for granted, but that could prove very useful to NMB employees who hope to remain closely connected to what their customers are thinking, doing, and feeling going forward.

our client workshop in Milan, discussing user flows and app functionality

We also planned and scheduled a three-day workshop for four members of the NMB leadership in Milan, where we planned on presenting our behavioral insights into their customers from the field, walking the leadership team through how we designed these findings into our prototype, and then engaging in a combination of co-design exercises to finalize the design of the service, and to create (and get buy-in around) our plan for running our next round of interviews in Jordan. For this next round, we would be prototyping the entire service, and we wanted to run the service enactment with real NMB customers in settings where the service would eventually be offered to get as accurate a picture as possible around how the various touchpoints in the service could be improved.


Following our successful client workshop in Milan, we proceeded to incorporate the client’s proposed changes into the physical and digital touchpoints that we intended to test in our following round of interviews.

The creation of the wireframes was a joint effort between all team members, with the critical addition of Érica Moreti, the Milan studio’s Service Design Lead and a highly experienced digital designer with deep expertise in the rapid production of compelling wireframes. After creating and showing a draft of the wireframes to the clients during the workshop to get their feedback, we set to work on getting the wireframes translated from English into Arabic. While the limitations of Adobe Illustrator initially made the swapping-out of text a challenge, we persevered through these technical difficulties to have an InVision prototype composed entirely of Arabic wireframes.

Similar to the last round of exploratory interviews, we worked closely with our colleagues at NMB to settle upon who we should speak with for this final round of interviews. We decided to sacrifice geographic diversity in the interest of limiting travel time, and focused upon recruiting both merchants and NMB customers in and around Amman, eventually settling upon four merchants (two in the heart of urban Amman, two in villages on the outskirts of the city) and twelve microloan customers (three at each merchant). Simulating our service in as real a manner as possible required us to first introduce and run a service simulation in the shop of each of the four merchants. Once we had obtained the merchant’s opinion of the prototype service and gained their trust over the course of the interview with them, we would then “take over” their shop for half of a day on the following day, have an employee of NMB pretend to be an employee of the shop, and run a service simulation where the loan customer gets to “try out” making a loan repayment using the prototype service. For these customer interviews, the interview would actually begin with a discussion outside of the shop between the facilitator and the respondent, and as the customer and facilitator actually approached the shop they would be asked their opinion on the physical touchpoints that distinguish this particular merchant as an official “NMB repayment point” (a series of signs in Arabic that featured the NMB logo and were affixed to the store’s exterior and sitting on the counter inside of the store).

A visual guide to all our prototyped touchpoints that tested with respondents during the service enactment

In deference to the wide range of incomes and technical savvy of NMB’s diverse customer base, we tested both smartphone and USSD feature phone versions of our service. While our smartphone version of the service featured in-phone InVision prototypes written in Arabic and built from wireframes that our team created in Adobe Illustrator, we lacked the linguistic and financial resources to create a sufficiently reliable USSD prototype in Arabic, so we settled for a paper prototype of a feature phone that the facilitator would guide respondents through interactions with.

After we had concluded the final interviews, we made some minor adjustments to the wireframes based upon both merchants’ and customers’ feedback on the loan repayment service we had tested with them. The date of our presentation to our internal clients at the National Microfinance Bank coincided with a meeting of the Board of Directors of the bank as well, and what began as an off-the-cuff 15-minute high-level overview of our field research findings and proposed service turned into an hourlong detailed discussion on the state of microfinance and technology adoption in Jordan today, with the board’s enthusiasm for moving forward with the full-fledged development of the service evident by the end of our conversation.


Finally, although the initial Request for Proposal from the National Microfinance Bank asked for a bid that included the full-fledged development of the service’s digital and physical touchpoints, Continuum’s Vice President Augusta Meill who led the project advocated that rather than Continuum’s team leading the development of the app remotely from Boston (which would be expensive, time-consuming, and an inefficient use of the bank’s resources) that Continuum instead help the National Microfinance Bank craft a separate proposal to work with a local software developer to create the final version of the digital elements of the service. This way, any costs would be controlled, and any questions that arose about the development process could be resolved both quickly and, if necessary, in-person. After advising NMB closely through the Technical RFP process, we ended up choosing the developer Access to Arabia, a Jordan-based developer with a track record of developing digital touchpoints for several of the country’s leading financial institutions.

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