Money is not a common object, but a common unit of value

Think about all the things you can DO with money

All of us spend it. Some people borrow it from other people who lend it. We have tools to track money, we can accumulate it, analyze it, to think about it later. We can earn money, we can separate money into different accounts. We can use money to help entire countries, entire industries, or entire populations. We can give money away or keep it for ourselves. The things we can DO with money are infinite. And we have built an infinite number of systems to accommodate our infinite number of actions. These systems are made up of institutions, objects, networks, and people. Some of these systems are visible. Most are increasingly invisible.

The entire world has spent a good part of the past 4 years talking about these systems. We have uncovered why they don’t work, can’t work, or aren’t working the way the should work. We have proposed and argued about ways that they need to work better. Regardless of where we stand, it should go without saying that our money and the systems that support it have become really really complex. 

Yet, despite it’s massive and looming complexity, money doesn’t leave anyone out. Even the people that don’t have it, can’t understand or access it, can’t live without it. 

The number of people who interact with money is far greater than the number of people who interact with Facebook. And that is power. And I’m talking about the interaction… not the money.

For something with so many users, why aren’t we putting more effort and focus into how we interact with and experience money?

Could it be that it is because we are too focused on what money DOES rather than what money IS? Anthropologist Keith Hart said, “Money is a means of social interaction.” Money is a way to participate. A way to engage with all the things - large and small - that matter to us. 

Our focus on what money already does, has only highlighted it’s shortcomings. But by renewing our focus on what money inherently IS - we come to understand what it can enable. Think about the other participatory objects, products and systems: These systems enable sharing, chatting, giving, inviting, messaging, friending, connecting, experiencing, even trusting people you don’t know and have never met.

However, when I asked 80 college students to talk about their experience with money, this is how they described it: private, selfish, anxiety inducing, out of control, elusive, unpredictable, overwhelming, not-emotional, impersonal, invisible, confusing, and a lot of work. 

There were only 2 areas where they talked positively about their experience with money 

  1. Saving not only gave them more money to buy and do the things they wanted to do but also gave a sense of confidence, pride, and stability.
  2. Most find great joy and satisfaction in giving money, however small, to a friend in need.

While their negative experience was based on “the system” taking money from them (in form of interest, loan payments, and purchases), each aspect of their positive experience with money focused on giving within a highly personal context. First, giving to themselves and then giving to others. Saving built a sense of individual competence and autonomy, while helping others tapped into this generation’s overwhelming desire to be generous and share.

These positive actions and behaviors around money drilled straight to the heart of what money IS and the positive things it enables. Money is a way to participate. Money is a means of social interaction. Money enables relationships and exchanges. Our complex systems and institutions have turned our experience of money into a highly private and personal pursuit that is tied to an object or coin. We have forgotten that money, at it’s heart, is NOT a common object, but rather a common unit of value that is intended to be shared and passed between people. This is what money DOES best - and it should come as no surprise that some of our most delightful experiences with money are still built from this original foundation.

My thesis work stops thinking about money as a financial resource and starts thinking about it as a series of exchanges and social interactions that help you participate in the world in ways that are meaningful.

How do we DO this? 

  1. Through saving rather than spending or borrowing. 
  2. Put money back into a social context
  3. Focus on the transferrable and sharable qualities inherent to money
  4. Leverage the fact that for the first time in history, our social capital and financial capital exist in the same space - on our mobile phones.
Over the next 5 weeks, I will continue to expand on my entire design process and find meaningful ways to communicate the work I have been doing. This is just the beginning.

I have spent the past day going through my research, insights, writings and readings trying to cull everything down into manageable bits so I can begin to get a handle on how to present things. So far this is the clearest and most succinct way I can express my work to date: Match the intrinsic qualities of money with the intrinsic motivations of people to build more sustainable interactions around our financial relationships.

Money isn’t a hinderance, but an enabler. And we should start interacting with it as such.
I’ve spent a good part of the day soaking in and working through the feedback from the rountable discussions last night. This past month, I have kept coming back to something I said during the first weeks of my thesis exploration: Focus on what people can do, rather than what they can’t. The thought above is a snippet that didn’t make it into my final doc today, but is a core idea throughout my work, and didn’t want it to slip through the cracks. 

User experience

I have been really struggling these past weeks trying to figure out how to show and talk about my concept in ways that are meaningful and concise. I have been especially hung up on communicating the user experience - trying to decide if its best to talk about the overall need for my product or better to show it in action; whether to talk about how it works or the emotional experience with it. It has all been quite a tangle and I have been discouraged because I feel like I don’t have the time to do any of it very well. However, after good conversations with both Allison and Dave today, I think I am now headed in a better direction. By focusing on the value of saving through the lens of specific product features I think I will be able to make some good progress….  

This is my first pass at a presentation introduction. We are working with Stephen Nixon, which has been a fantastic experience. I have been working this past week to refine my approach - which really means overhaul it all together, but it has been fun. Here is the feedback that I received last week and have been improving upon.

  • The things I talked about in the first minute were not necessarily related to the main point of saving.
  • Starting with social is perhaps revealing something too soon and not immediately clear. Don’t make your audience work too hard from the beginning
  • Make a statement about money that is not so loaded. Something that is easier to connect with. Something like: “Money Sucks.” Immediately identifiable because we don’t have enough of it. Then move into the fact that it’s also social.
  • Go slower., Pause more., Too many ums.
  • Credit cards: the obvious option, but not the only option.
  • The important thing about saving is:
  • Build empathy with your audience

We are re-presenting tomorrow to Chloe Gottlieb, David Womack and Tamara Giltsoff and I am feeling much better about the direction I am headed.

Thanks Benjamin Gadbaw for the link to this one. Amazing and so relevant.

"Products based on sharing are disrupting traditional industries"

I probably have this phrase written in one way or another on about 90 different pieces of paper that are littering my life right now. But there is something valuable to writing things down over and over and over again.

I chuckle a little when I see that I was writing the same thing in 2007…. and feel really good when I realize that what I am doing right now is exactly what I have been writing about all along. It’s maybe what both Liz and Paul would call “a consistent approach to a persistent idea” Heh.

Design for strengths and capabilities not for weaknesses and limitations.

Admittedly, I am horrible at formally documenting my process, but I found these post it notes hiding under a stack of papers on my desk. Chances are I wrote them some time about January or February when I was planning out my initial prototype. While I had set out to design an easier and more sustainable way for people to save money, I ended up teaching myself and learning a lot about prototyping for behavior change— because lets be honest, saving money is not quite as attractive to people as spending it.

According to my post-its, here are the things I was thinking about as I started prototyping: (I’ve included a few thoughts and links to posts I have written in the interim to fill in gaps, insights, and findings.)

  • Design for existing strengths not weaknesses I wrote about this before, but I think it is the one point that has been the driving force behind the majority of my design and prototype decisions, so I will say it again: The key to success is not in telling users to work harder at something they already suck at, but in giving them the tools to improve upon their existing strengths.
  • Design for capabilities not limitations: We already feel so limited by what we can and can’t do with our money. Our options around saving are so limited that I found that some of my prototype participants didn’t even know what a savings goal was. They thought saving was something that was wrapped up in a 401K, home ownership or life insurance plan - all things that were inaccessible and irrelevant to their life experience and behaviors around money. They weren’t able to even fathom saving for something so huge - so they didn’t. And as a result, they didn’t save for anything else either. My design focused on setting short term goals - things that users felt like they could complete confidently and competently in a knowable amount of time. The framework was something they could wrap their heads around - it was something they felt capable of working towards and completing. 
  • Design for users’ lack of time It goes without saying that most mobile experiences should be designed around what Josh Clark calls "quick hits": that is - Assume that interactions with the app are going to be wedged between all the other things we are doing in our day. Don’t have any delusions that people will actually want to engage whenever a notification comes through. The job of the designer is to make them want to engage and make that experience as simple as possible. “The best apps fold neatly into the fabric of a busy schedule… Get me there in a tap or two.” This means that the act of saving has to be quick. Easy. Effortless. In a nutshell, I had to make the act of saving as easy as swiping a credit card…. or easier.
  • Design for users competing priorities This was a hard one to tackle because the priorities and behaviors that I was up against were pretty big. I have written about this elsewhere, but to summarize: I had to make saving money for something in the near future more attractive and pleasurable than spending money (and seeing immediate gain) in the present. The main way I have been thinking about this is to make the “saving” experience as positive as possible. If the one bad thing about making a purchase is feeling guilty about spending the money, I’d do the opposite.  I’d make people feel like they were paying themselves. And everyone likes to wake up with some extra money in their pocket. I want my experience to feel like that.
  • Be there for users when things start to break down: I had to figure out ways to anticipate even the most positive of actions breaking down. What happens when people fall off the wagon, so to speak? What happens when they get tired of making a daily contribution or realize they are actually saving too much and can’t sustain their day-to-day lifestyle? What happens then? As I worked through my prototype this past month I had to purposefully break interactions in order to find the best to build them back up.
  • Make it as easy as possible to get people involved. This is obvious. Perhaps more than the actual contribution action, I’ve been putting a lot of time and energy into the onboarding process. At times it seems ancillary and I kick myself for not putting time into the other actions and potential features, but then I remember that in order to be involved you have to GET involved. So… moving on.
  • Design for a trajectory of use rather than one time use. My prototype also addressed user over time. How long did I want people to be engaged? When do I give them breaks? How long is enough? How long is too long? I hate to beat a potentially dead horse, but a lot of my thinking around this was inspired from coaching and preparing competitive training programs for athletes. Change is only going to happen if you switch up the intensity, frequency and rest periods often so people don’t plateau or fatigue. The goal is always to be improving.
People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.
Paola Antonelli, via Jonathan Moore. (via allisonacs)

(via allisonacs)

I’ve spent the past two days thinking a bit more purposefully about who I want to pitch my thesis to on May 12 - a day I have dubbed the Frabjous Day - which is besides the point for this blog post, … but anyway. I made a quick diagram of all of the potential audiences for my thesis pitch— individuals and specific organizations, and what they might be interested in hearing about (in red). It is a lot and I have the basic skeleton of a compelling pitch for each of these gorups… Which is a real drag because I only have 7 minutes.

This week’s tasks

This weekend I spent a fair amount of time working through the various service touchpoints within the collaborative finance product I am building. Before this weekend, I had spent significant time building out a strong experience around the contribution action making sure that all parts of the system supported that action in a way that was meaningful, easy, and relevant to the users’ goals, needs and contexts. This thinking manifested itself in how I structured groups, contribution frequency and periodicity, and on-screen UI elements. I am feeling confident on most of these fronts and need to shift back to the greater user experience with the product. As I have been working these past weeks I have identified three main points within the user experience of my product that are especially important. Unlike my previous work around the contributions - which focused on getting someone to start something, these three points focus on the tangible acknowledgement of a completed user action. They are:

  1. completion of a daily contribution
  2. completion of a sprint
  3. achievement of a goal

My thinking is this: that if a user feels great about a daily contribution, they will be more apt to continue to the end of a sprint. If they are positively acknowledged at the end of a sprint, they will be more likely to continue on towards their goal. The positive feedback upon reaching a goal, seems an obvious one, but the event is such a major accomplishment considering the behaviors around saving, that it deserves an equally major celebration.

 This week I will be developing more specific ideas around each of these moments and constructing a more specific narrative around my product that (hopefully) I will be able to communicate through a video or other means in the next 6 weeks time.

Mark has always been impatient, so he decided to make an honest effort at getting his head back above water. Taking the advice from his New Year’s resolutions article, he started small, by putting away one dollar a day.

Some time passed, and Mark realized that he wasn’t missing that daily dollar. He went up to two, then three, then four dollars a day as the months went by. Before long, Mark’s saving became automatic. He would make his daily savings transfer almost right away after he woke up.

Thrilled to see that there are people out there hacking together what I have spent the past year building! via Money Blue Book

Designing for social and collaborative finance models

My work for the past 12 months has focused on how we can use existing social structures and informal networks to create viable financial relationships and transactions. I think these kinds of transactions fuse design, interaction, behavior, and business objectives in ways we have never seen. 

As I plow my way through the final weeks of thesis, I find myself revisiting the possibilities for products like Twitter to help the kinds of P2P transactions that my collaborative finance product facilitates. Companies like Chirpify have only started to pave the way for these interactions, with perhaps little awareness of the massive iceberg that they sit on the very tip of. Obviously, the possibility for direct payment between consumer accounts via a platform like Twitter has some exciting integrations. But I want to get at what’s lurking just below the surface - what’s out there, but not yet within our reach or vision as of yet.

As I think about the nascent ability for social platforms to facilitate transactions, I have to ask: what happens when this kind of social media driven payment technology reaches audiences who are not looking for a unique way to buy a shirt at their favorite store or make a donation to a local charity? What then?

As westerners, we are used to transferring money electronically because our banking infrastructure has made it possible to do so. However, in other parts of the world it is not a banking infrastructure, but a communications network that has already allowed millions of people to transfer money between each other and businesses, catapulting the need for institutional frameworks. (I’m thinking specifically of M-PESA and Safaricom, here, among others.) The shift from payments via a banking infrastructure to a communications network is massive. It has changed (or will change, depending on your geography) all of our interactions and traditional behaviors around financial products and services. Over here where our interactions with money have been, for decades and decades, the most private of matters, we think that the union of payment technology with a communication platform is new. It is not. And while we are a bit behind the curve, that does not make this kind of payment/communication union any less revolutionary. There are many more things I could say about that, and will, sometime in a following blog post or two. 

However, for now, I will say that what IS new is the integration of payments to a SOCIAL communication platform like Twitter. The difference here is that the addition of the word “social” makes all transactions that were once very private, incredibly public. I am not sitting alone at my desk conducting a private transaction with an online retailer or beloved charity. I am not even out in the middle of Africa using my mobile phone to pay for healthcare services. No. I am conducting a transaction that is being broadcast to 100 million people around the world— which, for reasons that should be obvious, is amazingly powerful. It seems clear to me, but I will say it anyway, that because these transactions are made public via SOCIAL media, these transactions are, themselves, inherently social. Again, a seemingly obvious thought, but to my surprise not one that many people have thought of. Mostly because that level of exposure brings up the equally thorny topic of privacy, which people immediately assume is inextricable from our financial transactions. There has been lots written about this as products like Blippy hit center stage a few years back, so I won’t rehash here. I have found that there are bigger fish to fry and some incredible interactions and behaviors to design for within this newly social financial context.

(As an aside, My delineation between interaction and behavior is quite purposeful - where interaction is tied to physical actions (swiping a credit card) and behavior is linked more to our state of mind (I will not swipe my credit card because I am scared to go into more debt.) To design for social (and potentially collaborative) payment models means you have to design for both interaction and behavior - which unlike privacy, are, in fact, inextricably linked when it comes to money.

How do you design for that? How do you design for social and collaborative payment models? Once payments go public it is one thing to worry about broadcasting your feed and payment activity… but it seems like a trite problem compared to the massive opportunity that can be found when you combine technology, social groups and payment structures. What my thesis addresses is how our behavior changes when technology makes our payment actions go public, and how to design for that. What I have found over the past year is that to design for this kind of interaction, there are a few things we need to rethink: 

1.) We have to rethink our conception of a social network.
Currently, our social products are wired for quantity. How many people can I follow, how many friends can I add, how many connections can I get, how many photos can I upload. This is all fine and well, but when it comes to our behaviors around money, this might be the first time in decades (dare I say centuries) where technology has led us to prioritize quality of financial relationships over the quantity of financial resources. Put simply, until we become comfortable with the social nature of our payments, WHO we interact with is more important than the amounts we transact. If we build social platforms for monetary exchange they have to design for meaningful interaction between people. Otherwise they become merely a broadcast.

2.) We have to rethink motivation.
When payments become social, the action of paying (not just the resulting purchase) also becomes social. If we assume that a financial action is the result of a financial behavior, and that behavior is most likely linked to a particular motivation or incentive, we have to ask, What happens when people start to expose their motivations (or incentives) via social payment platforms? What then? While people might be comfortable linking their bank account to a social payments network, are they equally comfortable with how other users perceive their actions, behaviors and motivations? To ensure maximum engagement, we must design experiences that are “safe” not only from a financial perspective, but also from a social and behavioral perspective. Which brings me to:

3.) We have to design for groups rather than individual users.
To design for a social payment platform means we have to understand the complexities of social motivations, which are… well, insanely complex. Adding social to financial exchange means that we’ve introduced a third group of stakeholders into the equation. Where e-commerce had to forge new relationships between merchant and consumer, social transactions have to address the addition of all social interactions that our financial transactions touch. This means shifting our designs away from a singular user, and towards designs that serve the strong personal connections amongst groups of users.  

I wonder if we are equipped and ready to tackle such challenges as these. Not only as designers, but as users. I hope so. Because I am.

The next generation of successful social products will acknowledge that our social capital is a currency. They will provide tools to enhance our social capital’s functionality as a store of value, a medium of exchange and a unit of account. They will replicate the deep feature set at our hands to deal with money — banking, tracking, exchanging, investing, et cetera — for our connections and relationships. Over the past five years, social networks and the decreasing cost of bandwidth and storage have lowered the transaction costs of social capital exchanges by orders of magnitude. Now, the race is on to provide the best tools and infrastructure around this new currency.

Alignment vs. Friction

I’ve been thinking about the amount friction within my product. I have gone to great lengths to design an experience that makes the savings process as friction-less as possible without automating it all together. My conversations with both Charles and Allan this past week have me revisiting the idea, however, and examining the advantages and disadvantages of adding or subtracting friction from the savings process.

The friction filled point that I am talking about is, again, the payment action. Allan saw this repeated action as adding friction in a positive way - causing users to slow down a purchase (or contribution) decision and be actively involved in the process of helping someone achieve their savings goal. The reminder not only lets them actively participate financially, but gives them a definite time and place to check up, support, input, and suggest other ways that someone could reach their goal. It gives the “saver” constant and immediate feedback as to what people think about their goals and the ability to change them if their friends think there is a better, faster, cheaper, or alternative way to reach them. 

Charles thinks that the payment action (as easy as it is) is still too much friction over time and that people will not want to bother with the daily action or the notifications that will come with it. These things in combination will become burdensome and actually heighten the amount of friction in the experience even more, causing people to not engage. He suggested that it become automated so that people don’t have to think about it at all.

I see the benefit to both arguments. The notification fatigue was one that I was actually really worried about in my prototype, but didn’t get a chance to test its limits because 1) my prototype was not long enough, and 2) people knew they weren’t saving for their entire goal, so could deal with the notifications. (That said, most participants responded positively to daily notifications for just over 3 weeks.)

I actually see great value in Charles’ insight, and the major problem I have with automating the contribution action is that there would be no engagement around the most important interaction and decision of the entire experience. The lack of responsibility around financial behaviors (even positive ones) is a problem I hoped to address. I am now realizing that in the execution phase of my project, that this goal is at odds with another goal I had of encouraging sustainable financial behaviors.

I go back to the idea of “alignment”- to have alignment with the goal of “sustainability” would suggest that I need to automate the payment action. Reduce friction. However, to align with the goal of “responsibility”, it seems that I would need to keep it as a conscious action. Add (a litte) friction. So now the real question becomes what are my priorities? How can I refocus my goals or refine the user experience into a more cohesive execution? I have some ideas. Time will tell whether they are good ones. Stay tuned.

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