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Designing Moneythink Mobile: Learnings from Our Human-Centered Design Collaboration with IDEO.org

January 11, 2014

Moneythink member, Jennifer Shoop, who worked closely with the IDEO.org design team to bring mobile tools to Moneythink’s youth financial literacy program, tells of her experience collaborating with IDEO.org and being introduced to human-centered design.

*the original article featured in this post was written by our CIO, Jennifer Shoop, and can be found here.

About a year ago, our CEO, Ted Gonder, noted and paired two important observations: first, nearly all of our students have smartphones and second, students make all of their financial decisions outside of school, i.e., outside of the Moneythink program, which runs in urban high schools.  He decided that it was time to build a mobile tool that would extend the learning opportunity and afford students the chance to demonstrate that they’d taken to heart what they’d learned in class. The elegance and promise of the Moneythink mentorship model alone had me tripping over myself to find a way to work here (I just came on board full-time a month ago), but learning about the plans for this mobile application spurred a quantum leap in my excitement about pursuing a job opportunity at Moneythink.  (Envision an electron jumping to a higher energy orbital.)  This app would bring us right to leading edge of edupreneurship, leveraging learnings from hybrid education models; behavior tracking and change and the related expanse of tools that cater to the “quantified self” movement; and especially sticky digital education products.  It would also provide us with a means to measure our impact as an organization.  And, most importantly, it would enable us to better serve our students.

Through generous funding from the Center for Financial Services Innovation, we were able to partner with IDEO.org, the non-profit wing of the design giant IDEO, and the incredible development firm CauseLabs, to figure out what this app might look like.  In mid-November (my second full day on the job!), a trio of sharp, curious, and open-minded IDEO.org consultants arrived in Chicago to kick off the engagement.  Following IDEO’s protocol, we spent the first week visiting with mentors, mentees, Moneythink staff, experts in youth engagement, and youth within our target demographic that are not presently enrolled in a Moneythink program.  Our goal was to assess how our youth are engaging with money and mobile in order to build a product that meets them where they are.

As I documented here, I arrived, freighted with expectations, and I left, simultaneously bowled over by the power of what we’re doing and humbled by the imprecision of my novitiate assumptions.  In short: we learned a lot when we observed, asked, and listened.  Key insights from our initial phase of the human centered design process included:

1.  Most of our students earn sporadic incomefew have jobs and most receive money on birthdays or at Christmas and through occasional spending money disbursements from family members.  The concept of sporadic income could well merit an entire blog post of its own, as it necessarily obviates the utility of the traditional budgeting and savings practices we so readily herald in our financial literacy programs.  This is not to say that the budgeting and saving lessons aren’t worth teaching, but that if we want to know whether students are able to “practice what they preach,” there are real constraints that must be considered.  We must envision “proto-saving” and “proto-budgeting” behaviors–what are the on-ramps to these longer-term habits?

2.  All of our students are financially dependent—some are further along the dependent-to-independent spectrum, but even those with their own income and bank accounts are not fully in control of their own finances.  This was an important insight for two reasons: first, it helped us better frame their worldview.  In one experiment, we asked our youth to complete a budgeting activity, and I was surprised to see how difficult (impossible?) it was for them to envision a life where they would be unable to call their mothers for cleaning supplies or borrow money from a family member or otherwise lean into an existing financial “net.”  One of the college counselors at one of our partner schools mentioned that every year, he has a couple students call him asking for financial support for tuition payments–to the point that the high school has created a fund specifically for this reason.  While incredibly moving to learn about the school’s die-hard commitment to seeing its graduates through college and beyond, it occurred to me that a big piece of the puzzle must be better preparing our students for the sudden leap to relative financial independence that they are about to make.  The observation that our students are universally financially dependent was also important from another angle: we learned that parents of children who earn regular income often rely on their children to chip in for unexpected household needs or control their bank accounts.  That is to say, even for youth that are toward the outermost edge of financial independence are again not in complete control of their own finances, and, as a result, budgeting and goal-setting become a much more challenging proposition.

3.  Youth are shielded from their families’ financial realities.  Few of our youth knew about their parents’ financial affairs or were able to estimate their households’ fixed costs.  Further, one of the staff members at our partner school mentioned that few understand themselves to be “low-income” and do not necessarily make the connection between their qualification for free and reduced lunch and their families’ socio-economic status.

4.  For our youth, money is social.  Our youth receive money from people; they spend it with and on people; and they are extremely social about their finances.  As noted above, it was nearly impossible for them to envision a scenario where they couldn’t lean on a parent or loved one for financial support.  (One student in the budgeting exercise said: “Oh, this girl we’re budgeting for doesn’t need to set aside money for movies.  She’ll get a boyfriend and he’ll pay for it.”)

5.  Our youth demonstrate a remarkable aptitude and instinct for making creative financial choices and tradeoffs.  This was a big one for us, as we wanted to apply a strengths-based educational layer to our product, and when one of my teammates over at IDEO said: “Let’s begin by asking: what’s right with our teens?”, we all huddled around the cluster of observations around our students demonstrating remarkable resourcefulness.  These kids know how to make a dollarstretch.  Several great examples emerged during our budgeting exercise, where our youth were sharing different cost-savings techniques: “You can rent a laptop for free from this community resource…”; “You can use Netflix and then cancel the subscription just before it runs out so that…”; “You can use this website to find the cheapest version of the phone you want”; etc.  These early comments were then reinforced manifold during our live prototype test, where students again demonstrated remarkable creativity and scrappiness in finding free food; swapping out costly coffee and soda by brewing at home or drinking water; driving an alternate route to avoid contact with a favorite fast food restaurant; re-gifting a gift card; etc.  I also need to add one slightly off-topic example: when learning about compound interest during a mentorship session, one young man floated the following idea: “Why don’t you put a lot of money into your account just before they put the interest in and then take it right after?”  While we had to explain that interest is compounded daily, I was struck by how quickly he was looking for ways to optimize his return.

6.  As with most of us, long-term goals often take the backseat to short-term desires.  I would venture to guess that impulse spending is even more complicated as a teen, where there are attendant pressures that play into the situation.  One contact of mine suggested that “overspending is an emotional problem, not a financial one.”  I would add that, for teens, spending also generates social value (as Ted puts it, “the social value of money often outweighs its economic value”) and links in closely with the feeling of independence that is so crucial to our adolescents.  In other words, for teens, overspending is an financial, emotional, self-identity, and social issue.

7.  Most students have smartphones or plan to purchase smartphones soon.  And they love them.

8.  Many of our students, especially on the West side of Chicago, face real legal constraints when opening a bank account due to a lack of documentation.  I would posit that this is likely a reality faced by many low-income youths in other dense urban areas across the U.S.

I look forward to sharing more about the direction we’ve taken with our mobile app and the fascinating results of our live prototype, coming soon.

This post was written by Moneythink Mentor

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