Larry Hipp

Building a fintech product for global users: Lessons learned

By Larry Hipp, Brightwell

The efficiency and anytime, anywhere availability of the digital economy is something we’ve come to expect in the Western world. We easily transfer funds between accounts, deposit checks using our smartphones and split the bill at dinner with an app and a few emojis. However, that perception of fintech isn’t universal. In developing countries, a cash-based economy is often the norm and fintech is new, if not uncharted territory.

An opportunity for inclusivity

Fintech isn’t just about convenience, it’s also about inclusivity. Today, there are 2 billion unbanked people in the world. The opportunity for fintech to bring great freedom to those people is evidenced by the $57.9 billion in funding fintech companies secured in the first half of 2018 alone. With so many companies focused on bringing financial technology to market for consumers, it’s important to remember fintech’s potential to change lives around the globe.

If you’re thinking about developing a fintech product or are already down the path, you probably know that successfully building products for global users who span different cultures, languages and comfort levels with technology isn’t a simple task. At Brightwell, we’ve learned a lot in our journey to help global migrant workers get paid and better manage, spend and share their money safely. We’ve discovered the smartest path to creating a fintech solution that meets the regulatory requirements of multiple countries, crosses language barriers and addresses the unique needs of multiple nationalities and economies. It takes considerations that go far beyond tech specifications.

Larry Hipp

One size doesn’t fit all

When building a truly global financial product, a “one size fits all” approach will fail every time. You have to consider behavioral, cultural and socio-economic differences across the geographies you plan to serve. Designing one simple and intuitive product that covers as much of the financial spectrum as possible is not easy. It requires research, an enormous amount of listening to what people need and a true understanding of the macroeconomic circumstances of the cultures and people who will use your product.

When building our mobile app, we knew that 77 percent of Filipino adults are unbanked. In the Philippines, a deeply rooted and pervasive culture of migration has made moving abroad a common and even desirable option for earning income. For decades, sizeable numbers of Filipinos have left home in search of permanent settlement or temporary work overseas. Today, more than 10 million Filipinos are working and/or living abroad. Many of them work on cruise ships and need a way to send cash home to loved ones who might not have money otherwise. While it was important to give our Filipino users the ability to send money home, it was critical that their loved ones could pick up those funds in [1]cash. Without this option, our solution would be irrelevant to a very large segment of our users.

If you’re truly designing software for a global audience, you can’t approach it from the perspective of Western culture. The Western experience of how money works does not translate to other parts of the world. Being successful means getting out and seeing firsthand how money works in the geographies you want to serve. Ask questions and immerse yourself in the culture.

Other tips for building a global fintech product that encourages inclusion:

  • Hire someone who is passionate and well versed in the socioeconomic challenges of the markets you plan to reach.
  • Review similar products in the marketplaces you plan to pursue to understand what works, what doesn’t and how users interact with them.
  • Study human behavior. At Brightwell, we send employees on cruise ships to meet with our end users and interact with them face-to-face. This gives our employees a real connection to the work we do and helps us understand how we can adjust, improve and shift to best meet the needs of crew members.
  • Test and iterate quickly. For example, we learn by conducting surveys and interviews and follow a lean startup methodology, working in Agile and Scrum to help uncover and quickly address opportunities. 
  • Understand that not every user will have the same comfort level with technology. When you build a solution for a global audience, it needs to be intuitive. Creating something simple and easy to use will meet the needs of users who are less comfortable with fintech and also those who are more experienced.
  • Take time to understand the meaning of colors and words in the different markets you serve. You’ve probably heard one of the most famous of translation fails – the Chevy Nova which translated to “Won’t Go” in Spanish. Well, that one is an urban myth, but take a look at this long list of real fails. An understanding of language and colors is essential when creating a product for use in other countries. For example, the color red has a meaning of good luck in China but in South Africa, it is the color of mourning.
  • Make sure your marketing and product teams are closely aligned. Marketing is building a story about the features the product team is creating. Their goal is to communicate to a level that ensures a user understands the product, while the product team is aiming for simplicity and quickly bringing new features/products to market.
  • Consider colloquialisms and bring local, authentic words, phrases and elements to marketing. Doing this requires you to take the time to understand the different cultures and people in the geographies you hope will use your product.
  • Inclusion requires education. A big part of bringing the convenience and control that come with fintech is educating end users who may be less comfortable with fintech and helping them better understand it. For example, at Brightwell we create materials to help our end users plan budgets, review options to decide what is best for them and their family and provide savings tips.

The bottom line: if you build a product through the lens of the Western world, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Fintech is changing lives but bringing a life changing product to markets across the globe isn’t done overnight. There is no quick fix. If you put in the effort and truly care about understanding the people on the other end of your product, you’ll not only be more likely to succeed, you’ll be doing something positive for people around the world.

About the Author:

Larry Hipp is the chief operating officer for Brightwell, a fintech company that helps global workers get paid, as well as send and spend money safely and easily worldwide.


[1] http://nine.cnnphilippines.com/business/2018/07/11/2017-financial-inclusion-survey-bsp.html

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