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UX Design in Banking: What SpaceX can teach us about product design
Sanisha Naidoo and Mike Marais

UX Design in Banking: What SpaceX can teach us about product design

Part 1

Inspiration is everywhere and as UX designers in banking we are constantly doing UX research on how to improve our roles. We recently had a brainstorming session to see how we can learn about new ideas and best practices in successful product design. We were keen to discover different ideas and insights that could help our understanding of product development, ideation and innovation rather than the usual visual design, (interface design), user experience, user interfaces, UI design or usability testing.

As UX designers we recognise that user research, feedback from stakeholders, creating personas and user empathy are key to product design. We have also been told that four essential things to remember about the product design process are:

  • The process should morph to fit the project
  • Product design is not a linear process
  • Product design is a never-ending process
  • Product design is based on communication
What we discovered in our brainstorming session

An ex-South African, a visionary and an entrepreneur by the name of Elon Musk came to mind. In our brainstorm, we hypothesised that the product design processes at Musk's SpaceX could help any design team with problem-solving at their scale and in the context of digital products.

These brand ‘new products’, the results of the processes of these product teams and their project goals in recent years could teach us design skills that would future-proof us, long after the industrial design of physical products and even mobile devices have evolved.

Since 2002, SpaceX has been designing and launching prototypes, with a mixture of success and failure. No one can deny that their product design is inventive on a scale that only the brave can imagine. Elon Musk’s vision for SpaceX created a pattern where they launch multiple missions, made up of parts that have the capability to be reusable — thus creating the conditions required to continuously test and innovate in multiple ‘lanes’, and so learning from every new project.

How can SpaceX’s successes and failures influence the way we approach product design?

The ultimate goal that Musk set out with SpaceX was to help mankind to become a ‘multiplanet’ species. This feat requires many complexities and moving parts to come together: a vehicle powerful enough to get people and cargo safely off Earth, land on Mars, and back again. Before the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket in June 2020, Musk shared three things that “we can all learn from how SpaceX and NASA put America back in the lead in space travel”:

  • Don’t be afraid of big challenges
  • Focus on what matters
  • Share credit and take responsibility

Fast forward to this month, The Starship SN10 (“Serial №10”) spacecraft touched down successfully after a high-altitude test flight launched from SpaceX’s South Texas site. It rose 10 km into the sky and then came back to Earth for a smooth touchdown but the vehicle exploded about eight minutes after landing. This was still considered a major success because SN10 was the third test flight for a Starship vehicle but the first to feature a successful landing after reaching a high altitude. Its forerunners, SN8 and SN9, made progress in reaching high altitudes but both did not land successfully. They both hit the ground hard on return and ended up in pieces.

The Starship prototypes are important because SpaceX is developing Starship to get people to the moon, Mars and other distant destinations. Starship consists of two elements: a 50 meter long spacecraft called Starship and a giant rocket known as Super Heavy, both of which are designed to be fully and rapidly reusable. Both will be powered by multiple SpaceX’ Raptor engines.

The Starship = space vehicle + rocket, both powered by engine boosters.

SpaceX plans to eventually phase out its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and Dragon cargo and crew capsules. Musk believes that Starship’s combination of rapid reusability and power is the breakthrough that will make space travel economically feasible. SpaceX is iterating toward the final Starship spacecraft using a series of increasingly complex prototypes and so they will launch more test flights in the months ahead. They are already building multiple SN10 successors, as well as the first Super Heavy (rocket) prototype. Musk has said that the company aims to get a Starship prototype to orbit this year, and he expects the final spaceflight system to be flying people regularly by 2023.

On 30 March, the long-anticipated launch of SN11 took place at Boca Chica, Texas. It had issues on ascent and exploded on descent. Although there is no exciting footage of that, the commentary afterwards is also a learning in product design:

Elon Musk said: "Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today."

John Insprucker, launch commentator for SpaceX, said during the broadcast. "Starship 11 is not coming back, do not wait for the landing."

These statements are stoic and contained in it is: what happened + what the next steps are/the consequences of what happened.

With SpaceX in mind, the lessons we can learn in product design are the following:

  • There should be a big, audacious goal in mind for our products, something to keep us excited and driven to complete the tasks required for completion.
  • The big goal should be human-centred for it to stand the test of time. To help mankind to become a multiplanet species is ultimately a goal towards the progress of humankind in new frontiers (vs. bigger profits and sales). If we are confused about the bigger goal of our organisation, it helps to go back to the Vision and Mission statements, which should speak to this.
  • Often the features we are working on live in a system and what we are working on in a product is one part, an essential part, but just one of many, nonetheless. It helps to see the bigger picture.
  • Prototypes can be thought of as one in several prototypes, naming them for example Starship SN 10 (Serial №10), helps us to become less attached to the idea that this is “the one” that will be a success. If we know at the outset that a prototype will succeed in some ways and fail in others, then we have a more realistic expectation and will more rapidly prototype and learn from the success and the failures.
  • Things will fail, expect it, celebrate it. It is one step closer to future success.
  • Prototypes can and must always be improvements to the previous ones.
  • Don’t be afraid to phase out the things that did help at one stage, but have been superseded by more advanced features, products and new thinking.
  • Add one small building block at a time versus taking on a whole redesign. SpaceX builds its systems and tests its systems in modular ways. A successful landing of the SN10 will lead to the testing of SN11 and later the Super Heavy booster rockets — next, they will combine the two individual “features” and test them together. Just like Lego.
  • When we talk about our works let it contain these two parts
    What is/what happened + what this means for the listener?
How can we apply these lessons to product design in online banking?

With NASA, the Soviet, Chinese and Indian space programmes underway — it was not obvious in 2002 that the space race would have a serious contender born of a billionaire visionary. Yet, 20 years later SpaceX’s revolution in this domain is televised across the globe, reaches millions of views on live YouTube videos and makes newspaper headlines daily.

Let’s use this example as an analogy on product design in online banking. Let us compare the large established space agencies as traditional banks and SpaceX as a challenger bank. What problem(s) are the challenger banks solving, and as product design cadets, how can we build better products to solve these problems?

Traditional banks cater to a wide variety of people, from multi-millionaires to single parents opening an account with R50 for their child. But, what’s the difference? Monthly costs? Benefits? Different looking cards?

Currently, most banks offer children/minor’s account, student accounts, free accounts (still charging transactional fees), average joe accounts, business accounts, professional accounts and elite/ private client accounts. These are the most common account segmentation types, and each has its associated fees.

The fees for the transactions and levels of service are built into the type of account and other services that the client has opted for, as more and more value-added services can be bolted on to a bank account. Banks have become more than just transfers, payments, savings, loans/credit and investment options. We now have the ability to insure things, buy things, earn rewards, and more. However, the fees charged across banks for the same services are not easily comparable, and so clients are not always aware of what value they get from their banks for the particular bundle of services that come with an account or even if they have the optimal account, suitable for their present and future needs.

Fees structures of bank accounts are complex and are not easy to compare to features of accounts within a bank or across different banks. It is complicated and time-consuming for a client to compare and shop around. This is where the challenger banks become an enticing option as a new platform for banking.

“Monthly account fees have become the battleground for most banks in the “race to zero” — however, this has only really played out in the entry-level offerings by the banks.”, via

Challenger banks are foremost digital platforms and do not need to retrofit their legacy system or outdated ways of looking at banking services. But what does a ‘digital first’ bank look like? What is the ideal digital bank? According to engagement banking technology provider Backbase “Banks are already operating within an entirely new financial services industry and they must transform their business models to respond and stay relevant. In doing so, they have four key pillars for success at their disposal — omni-channel banking, open banking, modular architecture, and smart banking.” (Source - 2025 White Paper)

The four pillars outlined in the White Paper help us to gauge if we are preparing for the banking industry of 2025.

1. Omni-channel banking:

Omni-channel banking could refer to catering services to the client in a way that the client feels most comfortable with. Rather than building features or products for each possible channel, a central system that will allow and integrate the customer’s interactions across many channels (e.g., Save and resume from elsewhere — so you can swap from phone to PC seamlessly)

2. Modular banking:

Building a system in a modular way that will allow the developers to build solutions to problems that arise without needing to break or rebuild existing services/features. Just add a small building block to add a feature!

3. Open banking:

All banks can integrate into each other’s systems and databases. So, if a client wants to switch banks it will be a smooth and seamless transition for them.

4. Smart banking:

This allows the bank to understand their clients better, not just pushing the biggest offer to the client when they see they were paid an increase or are in a larger income bracket but rather using the client's spending data and savings data to assist them in such a way that they can become better managers of their finances.

In our next article (Part 2), we will unpack how we can apply some of the lessons of SpaceX to product design in online banking, which will serve to uphold the 4 pillars outlined by Backbase, of a digital-first bank.