When it comes to getting projects right, I've found it helps to assume we've got it wrong. Our hunches are off. Our assumptions are off-base. We then just might get it right when it comes to designing something people really want to use.
Our team here at CauseLabs didn't know what we didn't know when we started rapidly prototyping a mobile application for Moneythink, the established and growing financial capability mentorship program for urban, low-income 11th and 12th graders in the United States.
Ironically, projects that never identify incorrect assumptions are the ones most liable to be off course. Using IDEO.org's human-centered design process and on-the-ground field data, we uncovered what we didn't know, and our mobile app development changed for the better. Because IDEO.org talked with dozens of teens, the team quickly came to understand their mindsets and subsequent needs. That information, the kind that only comes from talking directly to users, helped us recognize what was wrong with our initial assumptions and pointed us toward better solutions.
To step back, the goal with Moneythink Mobile is to reinforce good financial habits, encourage smart financial choices and build on Moneythink's proven financial near-peer mentorship model pairing college-student mentors with high school students for financial education. The idea for Moneythink Mobile came about in 2013 when CEO Ted Gonder made two important observations of Moneythink students. First, nearly all had smartphones. Second, the students made nearly all financial decisions outside of school, and therefore outside of the Moneythink program. Moneythink then started to explore the building and funding of a mobile tool that would give students a chance to show they had taken what they learned in class to heart by practicing the skills in their lives.
Jump ahead to this month and the nine-week pilot of Moneythink Mobile is well underway, with 70 students from eight classrooms in four inner-city Chicago schools testing the technology. The app includes challenges designed to help students build awareness of their spending and saving moments, create small financial goals, and engage in budgeting behavior while earning points redeemable for rewards along the way. Students update their peers on their progress in a social feed, sharing their financial decisions and commenting on those of others. After the Moneythink Mobile pilot, we will evaluate student engagement to optimize the app to meet students' lifestyles, capabilities and interests. We anticipate full launch of the app in fall 2014.
Before we got to our pilot, however, we took part in IDEO.org's design process and our own rapid prototyping method to de-construct our assumptions to better steer our design. Here are a few:Assumption 1: Base the app on the web.
We wanted to be sure to reach all students, so a web-based app seemed like the obvious choice to ensure that no one was left out due to lack of access to mobile technology. After evaluating factors including audience, features and engagement, we concluded that a native app made more sense. Because the app's design leverages the built-in camera as the primary means by which youth update their peers and mentors on their progress, we felt that a web app would feel clunky and inelegant, and that a native application would yield a richer, more fluid experience. We also found that we needed access to the device's storage for syncing for offline or low connectivity periods.
Assumption 2: Create an iOS app.
Because there are a high number of iOS users in the United States, we assumed that we'd be designing an iOS app. We couldn't have been more wrong. The field testing with IDEO.org revealed that because the Moneythink youth come from low-income backgrounds and iOS devices are really expensive, Android was more prominent.
We didn't know that the app wasn't going to be iOS until the week before we started developing it, but we quickly adjusted. In fact, the design team went out into the field twice just to double check everything, and all of the data indicated that for the pilot to be successful, we had to start with Android.
Assumption 3: Tie the app to savings accounts.
On the face of it, creating an app that tracked savings habits seemed obvious for the Moneythink program. When our team met with Moneythink youth in Chicago, however, we learned that our students earn sporadic incomes, usually with an influx of money just once or twice a year, so they wouldn't be able to use a product that rewards regular savings deposits. Also, some students, for a variety of reasons, didn't have savings accounts.
Moneythink is already looking at how to solve the problem of getting students banked in a way that acknowledges their varied financial narratives and contexts. But before students can save, they need to change their spending habits. In this way, Moneythink Mobile is an opportunity to encourage good spending habits so savings can occur.
Assumption 4: Utilize Instagram in the app design.
Students of the Moneythink age group use Instagram frequently, so we considered leveraging the app through the use of hashtags that are related to financial tracking, such as #saving, #hadtobuyit, or other such tags. The problem, we realized, was that kids are incredibly creative with their tags, and we didn't want to limit their options.
We also realized that if we simply pulled data into the app, the kids might never engage with it outside of the classroom setting. So while Instagram served as a point of inspiration with regards to behavior, it wasn't the mentorship piece we needed, and it didn't fit well with the growth plan of Moneythink Mobile.
Conclusion: Making Assumptions...
Overturning these assumptions turned out to be a vital part of the process of creating something awesome. Had we not searched out for what we didn't know, we would have ended up building the completely wrong thing. In fact, even after IDEO.org's extensive process that generated clickable prototypes and field data, we still uncovered bad assumptions as we undertook the actual development of the app.
Turns out, bad assumptions are good, and a rapid and thoughtful design process has the power to turn these assumptions on their heads for better design for the people who use it.
Jennifer Shoop, Moneythink's Chief Innovation Officer, and the IDEO.org team contributed to this article.