Empowering millions of underbanked Brazilians with a P2P banking application


Mobile banking application.

Role: User Research, UX and UI Design, Product Design, Branding Specialist


Have you ever wondered how a bank is built? I had done so for many years until I received an email from an old friend.

He introduced me to the concept of a banking application that's peer-2-peer (1), works from any phone, and focuses on a different demographic than usual: the unbanked and underbanked. I was excited from the get go.

Several discussions later, I was in São Paulo, ready to lead a team in designing a unique banking application. After all, our public was very unique as well.

I have withheld and obscured some confidential visual and written material from this case study in accordance with my agreement with alt.bank.

The problem

The majority of banks do not assist the underbanked by choice. But it's simple to keep things that way because this target group typically lives on the periphery of society.

While outcast, the real deal is: the underbanked are buying, selling and making money daily and excluding them from the financial system creates problems every day. They can't order an Uber or sign up for Netflix, for instance, because they don't have a bank account and making major purchases is also a nuisance.

But working with this audience proposes its own challenges. Because most of the team of designers is middle class, there's a big challenge at hand when it comes to translating simple messages across and a lot of the work is UX Writing. Copy after copy we find a little bit more about this client, which has very special needs when compared to the average bank consumer.

It's not just that these customers lack knowledge of banking applications. They lack knowledge about the banking system themselves, having been forgotten by major banks.

Either working informally or being unemployed, these people have the need for banking in their everyday lives but nobody to tend to it.

That's where alt.bank comes in: a banking application built for the underbanked, that takes into consideration their many special needs. Our first task? To build the right persona for our product in order to get the MVP going.

Keep reading to understand how that was done and what conclusions we reached in the process.

The solution

Brazil has 34 million unbanked adults. Let that sink in for a second before you start thinking about how this application was built. After all, that's a lot of people.

And a lot of people propose a challenge to design itself, as we have trouble centering our design in one, two or even three types of users. Among 34 million unbanked we can't really pick and chose.

So how to build an app and make sure it would work in the brazilian market? That was the 1 million downloads question and we made sure we answered it by going through the scientific method.

A small city in Brazil was chosen to be our target audience and what we learned there is what we applied to the app. We couldn't get 34 millions users to try our application, but we sure could get a high rate of unbanked people within our area of operation and perform tests on them.

What we found was that it wasn't just a problem with the banking system itself. It was a general accessibility problem.

Most of the users interviewed during the making of the app related trouble seeing colors other than the primary ones, discerning shades or understanding what was the goal of each screen in our competitor's mobile apps.

So we reached a simple conclusion: we had to stick to the basics. Large shapes, big fonts and an overall look and feel that was a mix between material and our very own, very early design guidelines -- which would in the future become, in the hands of our expanded design team, a brilliant Design System.

With a month to work on the application, it was time to go to the drawing board.

Login and help screen for the early alt.bank application.

The first designs

We had an intense month ahead of us, so parallel to our research we had to design screens. And we were ahead on the development, with most of the application already working properly and ready for launch.

This was a big mistake, but one that companies often make and we have to deal with: expecting design to solve all problems, but only think of it as a last step. I happen to have experienced that in other companies and had an strategy to deal with it which was implementing branding guidelines.

It might look like a weird strategy. How do branding guidelines help with implementing design thinking in a company? Well, people tend to respect what they are able to understand and brand guidelines are of great help in that set up.

They establish a set of rules to follow and make a brand look inside into what really matters. During the making of a document containing a brand's guidelines you have conversations with the whole team, making sure everybody participates in the process and that also helps make people more involved.

With those guidelines in hand, it was easy to understand how our screens would behave and what they would introduce to the user. And it was easy to reach our holy grail: the menu system.

The menu system is still used today by alt.bank, very similar to its first iteration. It contains all the features of the app in one place, always visible no matter how small is your screen and with icons that simplify the understanding of what is going on in each tile.

Menu screen for the early alt.bank application, structure still used for the navigation in the system up until today.

The arrow system, used in the early icons, shows whatever is happening to your money at any given money. That iconset was very important in helping our users understand what was going on, since the words itself -- like withdrawal or transfer -- were new to most of them.

Debit card screen for the early alt.bank application. Seeing real life items they were familiar with was important for our user in the early stages of the application.

And though we had a great challenge at hand, I like to think the product did well. With this MVP, in three months, we reached 100k downloads and in a little over a year 1 million on the app store.

That broke ground for alt.bank's quick growth and continued efforts into including the unbanked and underbanked into the banking system. I am very happy to have been a part of this team from the ground up and to have helped consolidate the design message all over the company. What are your thoughts?

In conclusion

While the app reached most of its milestones, there was a lot to learn from it, to implement in future designs at alt.bank and beyond.

To summarize, I made the following list with what we found our as a team and as designers during this MVP launch of 1 month in São Paulo, that turned into 3 years of partnership with alt.bank and helped me grow as a UI/UX Designer.

As a team we found that...

We found that the initial experience needed to be improved.

While the app tended to most of the underbanked, our understanding of the audience was still in its early stages and we would find out much more about our target audience in the following years.

Brazil needed a product like alt.bank, from the many positive feedbacks we received from clients.

and as a designer...

I discovered that it can be a little difficult to tell if you are progressing, specially when you're working alone in a complex project like this.

Building such a sophisticated product is difficult on its own, and doing so in a startup atmosphere only adds to the difficulty.

Our 1 person team had to grow in order for the product to reach its full potential.

So, this is the story all about how I learned, from the get go, how a fintech works, what a bank is made of and how to prioritize the needs of customers and manage stakeholders expectations in a competitive environment where I learned a lot.

Want to read a bit more about alt.bank? If you speak Portuguese, you might be interested in the following article:



(1) In its first iteration, the alt.bank application was supposed to allow for peer-to-peer transactions to be made through it. Regular bank transactions, such as withdrawals, could be made with the help of another bank user, without the need for bank tellers or agencies for money to circulate in the system. That was later discontinued with the release of the Pix system in brazilian banking.


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