By Reena Jana, contributor
FORTUNE — Olof Schybergson, the founder and CEO of Fjord, a digital design agency that counts Citi, Foursquare, and Flickr among its clients, is a romantic. Sitting at a cafe in New York’s Greenwich Village on a sunny day, he’s talking dreamily about his company’s desire to help people fall in love with … their banks.
After the 2008 collapse of Wall Street and a long, grueling recovery, banks have taken their knocks with the public. But bills must be paid, funds transferred and balances checked. Schybergson believes such financial chores shouldn’t be represented on iPads and Kindles with flashy designs that scream for attention. Instead, tablet apps should be instantly familiar and quietly inviting. Like a potential spouse.
Schybergson is convincing. With his neatly combed hair and his Euro-preppy clothes, the CEO, in his late 30s, is boyish and polite. And subtly charming. “There’s an analogy between human relationships and services like personal banking,” he says. “Finding the right digital banking service — or any service — is like the search for a life’s partner,” he says earnestly in a soft voice.
He argues that there are different stages on the way to love. “There’s matchmaking. There’s dating, where it’s important to have a ‘wow’ response,” he continues, speaking with a slight Finnish accent. “When you find true love, people say ‘of course!’ about the relationship — or the banking app — because it feels natural, and they can’t imagine a time before having it in their lives. It’s a more flattering reaction than ‘wow.'”
Schybergson and his team at Fjord, a nearly 200-person firm headquartered in London and spread across eight offices in the U.S. and Europe, have been courting big banks and winning business designing mobile and tablet apps in the last couple of years. Data proves that Fjord’s iPad app designs for two of the company’s biggest clients, Citi (C) and Spain-based global bank BBVA (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria), are luring in and retaining customers, in terms of impressive adoption rates and very positive reviews. In Fjord’s case, Schybergson’s metaphor has been more than apt.
The Apple (AAPL) iPad app the firm helped design for Citi, for instance, was a hit with the bank’s customers when it was released in July of last year. It features colorful interactive graphs that display a user’s past, present, and future spending and saving habits. The app also features visual comparisons of the customer’s expenditures and those of the crowd (aggregated and anonymized), filtered by factors such as age. The concept was to present Citi customers with “their financial lives,” says Prashant Agrawal, Fjord’s vice president of Business Design. And app users can also pay bills and other prosaic banking activities.
As elegant-looking and easy to use as the app is, are people really using its various features, when they’re primarily there to pay bills? “The numbers show us that 77% of users are engaging with all three sections of the app,” says Andres Wolberg-Stok, Director of Strategy for Mobile and Emerging Technologies, Citibank North America.
Indeed, customers seem to prefer it to Citi’s earlier iPhone app, which the bank designed in-house before enlisting Fjord. During the first six weeks after the Citi iPad app’s release, the number of downloads was more than five times that of the number of Citi iPhone app downloads (the comparison was adjusted for length of device ownership and time from launch.) And more than 5,000 Citi customers who had never created online or mobile user IDs signed up for the iPad app, suggesting that the tablet application lured in previously non-digital customers.
Reviews have been — and remain — positive. Five weeks after launch, the Citi iPad app was selected as an “App Store Staff Favorite.” And a January 2012 case study from technology researcher Forrester (FORR) said the app “offers simple, intuitive task flows” among other compliments. It hasn’t been all praise, though. A highly embarrassing technical glitch in the app caused unwanted duplicate transactions for some customers, as the New York Times reported in February. Still, the iPad app is currently rated by users with an average of three and a half stars out of five, even after the mishap. (In comparison, the Citi iPhone app is rated, on average, a mere two and a half stars).
Wolberg-Stok is effusive when speaking about the collaboration between Fjord and Citi a partnership that the bank hasn’t talked about in detail until now. “One of the things we learned was that our own internal research and skill sets don’t always scale in a timely enough manner when tech disruptions take place,” Wolberg-Stok told Fortune. “And one thing we learned as a company that likes to innovate is that we need external opinions to counter the typical knee jerk reactions of compromise that come up.” Pleased with outsourcing the iPad app, Citi hired Fjord to design its Kindle Fire app, one of the first financial apps released for Amazon’s (AMZN) tablet. It was released last month.
Luis Uguina, Global Head of Remote Channels and New Digital Business at BBVA, echoes many of Wolberg-Stok’s opinions regarding the bank’s own relationship to Fjord. “When dealing with new devices, a bank has to adapt, and that can be difficult when you have 110,000 employees worldwide,” Uguina says, speaking animatedly on a mobile phone while heading to a late-night dinner in Madrid. “It’s hard for a big bank to be as fast as a small company can be when designing apps.”
Uguina and Wolberg-Stok both speak highly of Fjord’s ability to create iPad apps that eschew the traditional linear format of PC or smart phone banking. Those previous forms of digital banking were based on the traditional — and boring — paper ledger system of listing numerical and other information in neat, but confusing, rows. “I remember when we were designing an app with our own business unit. Everyone wanted to make a form with, oh, what seemed like 100 fields of information on the screen,” Uguina says. “Then Fjord designers said ‘nonsense!’ And they gave us an example of how to redesign our apps to quickly point customers to the number of our call center, with large digits on the screen.” BBVA was so impressed with Fjord’s design philosophies that it has just hired the firm to remake some of its physical branches, too.
Founded in 2001 by Schybergson, a former creative director at the revered interactive agency Razorfish (now owned by Publicis Groupe(PUBGY)), with Razorfish alums Mark Curtis and Mike Beeston, Fjord is growing. That’s notable, given that top design firms are shrinking their staffs in the wake of the Great Recession. Seven years ago, Fjord had a staff of only 18; today, that number is more than ten times that. The company is establishing new offices rapidly; a ninth, in Paris, is just opening its doors. Between 2005 and 2010, annual revenues increased more than tenfold, from a mere 1.9 million euros ($2.52 million) to 23.6 million euros ($31.42 Million). Estimated revenue growth between 2011 and 2012 will be near 21%, according to the company.
It is also a quirky firm that, even while the European economy staggers, has in place unwavering policies of taking employees on exotic trips as part of its management strategy. After Fjord employees have been at the company for two years, they are required to travel to Scandinavia to visit real fjords to understand why the company is named as such. (“Fjords are examples of elegant simplicity,” Schybergson says, also referring to the firm’s guiding design principle.) And each year, every single staff member, from CEO to receptionist, is swept away to places like Crete and Mallorca to bond. Each trip is commemorated proudly with a photo of employees beaming, usually poolside, in shorts and sandals as if on Spring Break. The expense is justified, according to Schybergson, for team-building.
Fjord’s work environment and innovation philosophies are obviously more touchy-feely than those of the more buttoned-up, bank behemoths that hire the design firm. And this might just be its strength in a sector whose image is suffering in the era of Occupy. “Fjord knows nothing about banking. And I mean that as the highest compliment,” says Uguina of BBVA, with a laugh. “But they know about great experiences. Typically, banks want to just hire lots of people with knowledge of financial institutions when they want to remake themselves. But they usually can’t think out of the box.”