The Smart Design Idea Behind Coin, The Digital Credit Card That Could Replace Wallets

Coin could make wallets irrelevant. But its real appeal will be deeply customizable security.

The Smart Design Idea Behind Coin, The Digital Credit Card That Could Replace Wallets

By now, you’ve probably heard of the stealth project called Coin. It’s essentially a smart credit card that, with the push of a button, allows you to cycle through your Visa, Mastercard, or Amex–up to eight cards stored digitally that might otherwise make a hefty wallet. Say what you will about Coin as a solution for the Silicon Valley 1%; its interaction design is incredible, starting with the Coin card itself: It literally morphs into your card of choice via its proprietary magnetic strip. And so as techie-futuristic as it might seem, Coin can be swiped by any standard credit card machine in existence. (That is, so long as it supports magnetic strips, which have become less common in areas like Europe.)


But when news of the project broke recently, it appeared Coin had a severe catch: While its own battery lasted a whopping two years, the hardware required a smartphone, connected via Bluetooth, to stay active and authorize payments. So if you lost your phone or even if it just went dead, Coin could become useless in as few as 10 minutes, putting its users in serious trouble.

Talking to Coin’s Creative Director Patrick Evans–the same esteemed designer behind HotelTonight–we learned that this bleak future isn’t quite the case, not unless you want it to be. Because of the software end of the product, Coin can be anything from a stupid-simple credit card to what may be one of the most secure payment platforms of all time. That decision will be on the user’s end.

“We’re building Coin so it can be used as a standalone device,” Evans confirms to Co.Design. “Not everyone has their phone with them all the time. And for someone like myself, my phone dies constantly, I would do something that better suits the way my life runs.”

“[But] if you’d prefer your card shuts off when it’s away from your phone, we want to provide that option for you. We want to make sure you have the power to control how that works.”


This, in essence, is the design perspective behind Coin. The hardware has been physically modeled after a credit card because almost everyone in existence knows how to use a credit card. But as any given Coin customer pulls out that card anywhere from five to 10 times a day, some will be incredibly paranoid about security, while others will not. And in turn, Evans is currently developing software that can customize secure use case scenarios for the customer. (But exactly what these scenarios will be, that’s still very much in the air.)

One way Coin could guarantee security is through the time–how long has the card been out of Bluetooth range–so if someone lost their card, it would automatically deactivate after X minutes. But Evans shared that they’re actually looking at far more nuanced use cases that could enhance usability, too.

For instance, you push a button on Coin to select the credit card you’d like to use. How do you know a waiter wouldn’t hit this button–even by accident? Evans explained that the latest Bluetooth protocol can decipher the distance between the card and one’s phone. So one scenario they’re exploring is changing the card’s behavior by proximity to your person. From 10 feet away, maybe Coin would lock its settings, but could and should the same system work when you hand your card to the cashier two feet away at your local bodega? Discovering these meaningful thresholds through beta testing is a large part of Coin’s current research.

“There are a lot of small details, that if they’re not considered, will surface in the everyday usage,” Evans says. “If we don’t think about these things now, they might create tiny points of friction.”

At the moment, everything seems on the table–Evans even mentioned the painful possibility of typing a pin into your phone to authorize each transaction on Coin–meaning that Coin is willing to become so secure that it could more than overcome its own accomplishments in easy usability. A critic might see that as a critical flaw. But we’re not so sure it is: In such a scenario, Coin would just be a different product tailored to that anal retentive consumer. For them, Coin wouldn’t be the easiest credit card to use in the world, it would be the most secure.

From what we gathered, the Coin team has been focused on finalizing the hardware first, due to the long lead times of production, and plans to fill in the gaps through software, which is still in its very early stages. But for as stunning as Coin’s stark industrial design may be, it’s really a red herring. Because it’s Coin’s intricate software component that will ultimately define and customize its experience to come. Coin is launching in the summer of 2014.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.