Brightwell Payments

Research / Pitch / Prototype

In the 2010s, the merchant marine and cruise ship industry faced a significant payroll challenge. These companies employed people from all over the world who would spend 90% of their time on a ship with poor or no internet access, cut off from their families back home. 

Rather than stock the individual currencies for each employee’s home country, the US dollar became the standard form of compensation. In cash. This created a very tense environment on board ships where workers would labor for months at sea in close quarters with almost no connectivity to the outside world (Internet privileges were commonly disproportionately allocated to the captain of each vessel) - workers who still got paid weekly and often resorted to hiding their cash around the ship until they got to shore.

Once they got to shore, these employees would head to the nearest Western Union and immediately initiate a cash transfer to their families back home - losing a significant proportion of their wages to taxes and fees. It turns out that quite a few laborers from the Philippines, Indonesia, and India don’t have traditional bank accounts, so cash transfers were the easiest way to get money back home.

This way of handling payroll required ships to essentially operate as floating banks, often with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on board at any given time. As the 2016 Tom Hanks film ‘Captain Philipps’ dramatized, this presents a special challenge - lightly staffed merchant marine ships effectively become targets for pirates seeking an easy payday.

In 2016, Brightwell approached us with a challenge: design a modern banking application for crew on cruise liners and shipping vessels who have almost zero internet access. If the majority of shipping company employees weren’t serviced by banks, Brightwell Payments (originally a prepaid credit card servicer) would become the bank, guaranteeing safe and easy payments and international transfers. We accepted, and I began the work of researching and prototyping for the pitch.

I determined we’d need a flexible interface that could stand up to intense localization, would work on a wide variety of smartphone devices, and made transfers and balance checks easy and secure even when cloud-based authentication wasn’t available. More importantly, I knew our user base would be skeptical of any new tool that took cash out of their hands - even if it was a safer and easier way to manage their pay. Although adoption would be mandatory, I knew the transition would be easier if the visual design communicated some of the qualities of traditional currency. I researched both virtual currencies like M-Pesa as well as the native currency design and came up with an initial design direction that tried to echo some of those visual cues.

While doing visual research, I also mapped out the key features we’d need to demo for the pitch prototype. Since we work with an agile methodology, we wanted to identify the key features we could launch for a v1 (that also happened to look good for the pitch). We settled on an animated splash/login screen for initial visual impact, a full interactive balance dashboard, and a sample card-to-card money transfer flow, and I mocked them all up in Flinto. After a two-week crunch of research and prototyping, we ended up landing the business, and went on to a fruitful collaboration.

 I knew our user base would be skeptical of any new tool that took cash out of their hands - even if it was a safer and easier way to manage their pay.