Last week, Regina Dugan, the former director of DARPA, stood on a stage and explained to a bunch of developers and reporters that as head of Google’s secretive Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, her job is to lead "a small band of pirates trying to do epic shit." It’s not complete hyperbole. ATAP is a team of some of the most experimental hardware, software, and interface designers and engineers on the planet, each invited for a two-year contract, to do what's expected to be the best work of their careers. At the end of those two years they'll no doubt depart for a Silicon Valley startup or mainstay like Apple. Which makes it all the weirder that one of ATAP's most prominent designers is leaving ATAP for a bank.
Daniel Makoski, founder of Google’s modular Project Ara phone project—which is one of the most radical pieces of hardware to ever come out of Google—and before that, one of the creators of Microsoft’s original Surface touchscreen tabletop—one of the most radical pieces of hardware to ever come out of Microsoft—is set to become the first vice president of design at Capital One.
"I’m basically bringing ATAP culture to Capital One," Makoski tells Co.Design, after laughing at his best "What’s in your wallet?" impression. "I’m working on a top secret thing I can’t tell you about."
At least, that's what he tells me at first. Later, he explains that they're spitballing several projects—potentially software or hardware. The truth, it seems, as elusive as ATAP itself.
Why land at a bank of all places? As far as banks go, Capital One's design team is relatively cutting-edge. The company has adopted design thinking as a mantra, and has introduced some fairly forward-thinking features into its online banking platform—from a simple, gesture-based password system in its mobile app to the ability to delve deeper into your past purchases to the GPS location where they were made. At the same time, the credit card business has suffered in the wake of the recession, and Capital One's own profits are down as a result. Makoski, it stands to reason, is the sort of thinker who can help usher Capital One into the post-credit card era.
"We’ve explored all kinds of stuff. We’ve talked about some things that are just completely ridiculous, and some things are just pretty aggressive, and some things are sane," says Scott Zimmer, Capital One’s head of digital innovation and design. Zimmer recruited Makoski. "But they all center around people’s relationships with their money. It’s something we’re trying to heal, this gap between how important money is, but there aren’t enough tools for [people to understand it]."
One thing that seemed clear in my conversations with Zimmer and Makoski was that everything was on the table. Zimmer wants to shake up the banking industry, an industry he admits is behind the curve on user experience in the digital realm. An openness to new ideas and the potential to make a tangible impact within a company that drew Makoski to Capital One over offers from more obvious recruiters like Apple and Samsung. Might he create new software? Sure, he said. Could his team pursue new hardware—which would be relatively unheard of for a bank in the age of iPhones? Also a possibility, he said.
Makoski didn't offer any further details, but it's fun to imagine what a bank's hardware might look like (for me, anyway). For all of its hype, there is still no digital wallet that consumers have flocked to instead of paper and plastic money. You could imagine Capital One crafting a sort of credit card for the post-iPhone era, something that can interface with your smartphone, make wireless payments, and maybe even extend payments to a button on your watch.
Can a bank, rather than a tech company like Apple or Google, ever make the digital wallet a product with mass appeal? Maybe. Maybe not. But surely the average consumer will benefit from the talents of some of the most exciting companies in the world (Google) making their way to some of the most boring companies in the world (banks). The more thought that goes into how our products are designed and engineered—whether phones or online banking or digital wallets—the better. This is our hard-earned money we're talking about, after all. It deserves nothing but the finest accommodations.
* This article has been corrected to state that Makoski worked on the Surface project at Microsoft, not the Courier project.