Baobab Group

Reinventing financial services for people in Africa with a distributed product design team

Paris/Dakar/Lorient, 2014 - 2016


Support Baobab’s digital transformation by building the capacity to design and develop user friendly financial services software for customers, employees, and independent agents.

  • Head of Design

  • Deliverables: Co-creation workshops, UI specifications, CX/UX/UI skills gap analysis, job descriptions, recruitment events, performance reviews, budget.


A distributed in-house product design team effectively collaborating between the group's headquarters in Paris, global technical services center in Dakar, and development partner in Sofia.

In the beginning of 2014, my former IDEO colleague James Moed asked me to co-facilitate a 5 day design workshop in Madagascar for an MFI (micro-finance institution) then called Microcred. This was my introduction to the world of financial inclusion, to designing for African customers, and it resulted in a four-year-long engagement. This is the story of how I scaled the in-house design team.


At the time, Baobab was successfully lending money in countries such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, or Mali, and the company had grown via a copy-paste model of launching in one country and then replicating the operational model in a next. Aware of the fact that their paper processes would limit their expansion, Baobab had embarked on an ambitious digital transformation journey.

One could say that Baobab was already customer-centric in the sense that everyone was focused on helping their customers (entrepreneurs and very small businesses) succeed. However the teams working on new financial products and digital processes were not skilled in using hands-on design methods to enhance the value, quality, and ease-of-use of their solutions.


1. Creating awareness around Design

No better way to learn about design than by doing! The first immersion took place in Antananarivo on the initiative of the former COO who had gotten interested in human-centred design by seeing IDEO's work in developing countries. We took the 10 participating managers though the design thinking process; we went out on a service safari, interviewed customers, synthesized what we had observed, mapped out the customer journey including concrete opportunities, and sketched potential solutions.

As you often see in these type of sessions there are some participants who pick up and adopt design methods very naturally as if they had been waiting for someone to put the paint brush in their hands. This was the case for Baobab's Chief Technology and Innovation officer with who I started to discuss their upcoming projects and the value of working with a UX designer.

Service Safari - finding inspiration on the streets of Antananarivo during a design thinking workshop

Qualitative research - taking stakeholders along for an exercise of listening and observing

2. Delivering tangible value and showing it

Not long after the first workshop mentioned above, I started a short consulting project to help define the experience of a new channel for banking services; a network of independent agents (think shop owners) performing deposits, withdrawals, and money transfers. I organised a design sprint in Dakar with core stakeholders with as outcome the main flow of the service and a set of specifications. Based on these I then designed the functional UI.

Beyond UI specs I wanted to give the CTO something to share internally, and I created videos with custom illustrations showing how the product would be used in context. These videos spread and were well appreciated, notably by the CEO, and they awoke the appetite of other business owners to collaborate with a designer.

Paper prototyping - activity to help the team figure out the right order of steps of a transaction at an agent

Animation with custom illustrations - showing how agents would use the tablet UI to serve customers

3. Becoming a distributed team

After my first UX project on inventing how the agent network would work, there were multiple other use cases for different types of users waiting to be addressed, ranging from creating a digital loan application file, a CRM-like system for loan officers to track their portfolio and loan repayments, to a mobile app with repayments schedules for customers.

For each of these projects I worked closely with the business owners (who would later be called product managers). In the beginning I engaged freelance UI designers to help with visual design. After a year or so I was on a full time contract and the demand for functional specifications and UI design continued to increase. The CTO and I decided it was time to recruit.

The first question that arose was: Where? Dakar was an interesting option for multiple reasons; the internal development team was based there, the designer(s) would be able to easily test apps with users in person, and salaries are a lower which can’t be neglected when managing a frugal department budget.

Finding the right people to join your team is never easy. Having references, contacts at previous companies where someone worked, and knowing the style of the design school someone attended helps. But how to recruit designers in Senegal, when there are hardly no agencies, and no design schools?

We organised an event! A three-day-long hackatonish get together with Baobab staff and guests to design and code new features that help people manage their finances. By word-of-mouth we invited aspiring product/UX/UI designers. This turned out to be a fantastic way to get to know potential candidates better, and I ended up recruiting two young creatives living in Dakar, one originally from Conakry and the second from Brazzaville.

Event invitation

4. New hire onboarding and training

I returned to Dakar to welcome the new designers on board and discuss how we would work together. Since they were self-taught and on their first corporate job, a shared vocabulary was missing. We had to define our own rituals, such as "how do we do reviews/critiques?" "how often do we meet online?", "When do we see each other in the office?"

Again via a learning by doing method, I taught them many things, from basics such as how to structure and name their files so that others would not be lost, or how to write concise comments, to how to run usability tests. The advantage of working with self-taught people is that they are used to seeking out useful information themselves and constantly in a learning mode!

One would made excellent suggestions around new tools to use (at the time for example Zeplin), and I usually replied: "Great, let's test it on one project, if it works for us we'll adopt it in our workflow". That kept motivation and engagement high, and in the end we'd only switch if the tool really provided value to our team.

Usability testing - teaching junior designers how to prepare for and run usability tests

Design review - capturing stakeholder feedback

5. Producing product interfaces

Baobab worked with an external software development partner called Softwaregroup, based in Sofia. We created our deliverables first for internal product managers, then they were shared with the developers in Sofia. Set up for success? Not always. Agile? Sort of. Anyone who has been on conference calls between multiple countries, time-zones, and English accents can relate. 🙃 I helped to make the collaboration more efficient by clearly writing down expectations, asking my team to participate in writing user stories, and through one-on-one quick follow-up calls/PM chats.

Here are a couple of examples of the types of products we worked on.

Product example: Bank Teller Interface - Web-based platform allowing tellers to easily perform deposits, withdrawals and money transfers

Product example: Loan Evaluation File - Digital collaborative spreadsheet enabling loan officers to decide who to lend to

Product example: Mobile banking app - Customer onboarding flow

6. Leading the Customer Experience team

With the global director of marketing leaving, an opportunity presented itself to lead a global CX team, combining design, marketing and communication skills in one department servicing all subsidiaries.

I recruited a UX Manager to take care of planning the work with the people who had now transitioned into product management roles, and divided my attention across communications and design. The global operational marketing manager reported to me, and I reported to the CEO and joined the board of directors.

Working together as a creative team allowed us to deliver a customer experience in a holistic way, and improve the overall communication with Baobab customers.

During a period of 4 years Baobab transformed into a leading FinTech focusing on financial inclusion, capable of designing and delivering meaningful products to their employees and customers!

My dream team - thinking bigger!


Getting together in person

After all the years that I’ve been working remotely, I’m convinced that recruitment and key stakeholders workshops are definitely the two activities worth spending your travel budget on.

Connecting personally, remotely

Working with young, self-trained designers with a different cultural background wasn't always easy. It took time, patience, and a revisited from of remote micromanagement to keep projects on track. But I'm proud of the quality we were eventually able to produce; on time delivery of assets, healthy communication with product managers and developers, and nice remote rituals to bond as a team. The funniest feedback I got from "my" designers was when they said:

"We were really surprised you ask about our lives and our families, because we thought white people only want to talk about work".

Remote working tips

Curious about what other actions I put into place to collaborate successfully with distributed teams? Send me a message at and let's talk!