How might we empower and educate university students about making effective financial decisions through an interactive experience?

As college students transition from relying on their parents, they must take on the responsibility of managing their own finances. Effective financial management early on translates into successful saving and spending throughout their career, and prepares students for big milestones such as buying a house. However, parents and children often lack effective communication about personal finances, so as young adults they get lost navigating complex financial topics. 

We address this through our solution, SparkTalk, two decks of cards that spark conversation about personal finance. The goal of our project was to break the binary culture of feeling financially literate or illiterate and create a new experience for the financially curious. Our solution leverages real connections between college age students and their parental figures/mentors.

I was mainly responsible for insight generation. I also lead user research interviews along with designing and iterating on our prototype design. Our client was Blend, a lending platform. Blend was curious in learning about next generation home buyers (likely to buy a home in 5-10 years) and tasked us with defining a problem space related to this group of people.
Background Research
Users are concerned with the financial feasibility of buying a home.

We began our process by conducting background research through from reading posts on forums and articles. From the research, I made a stakeholder map displaying all the relevant people involved in home buying and how they relate to one another.

I also created a user journey map and identified the steps in the home buying process and what pain points came with each step. As a group, we examined each map and determined the financial aspect of home buying commonly exhibited the most pain points. This is how we decided to focus on finances in our problem scope.

Generative Think Aloud
Users want to be actively involved in the financial process, and they need tools they can trust.

After identifying finances as a subject of focus, we set out to learn what misconceptions users currently have about finances related to home buying. We conducted four generative think alouds. We identified four existing calculators and came up with tasks for participants to complete while verbally explaining what they see, what they think they should do next, and why they do or do not want to do something.

We found that all the participants did not understand the majority of the terminology, even after reading provided definitions. We also saw all participants cared about the trustworthiness of the calculators. As such, we concluded that users want to be actively involved in their finances, they want tools they can trust and want to know what their money is going into over purely saving money on a deal. This all meant our prototype should teach students about finances in more personable ways rather than throwing definitions at them.

Contextual Inquiry
Individuals feel overwhelmed by the complexity of personal finance, so we explored gamification.

Next we sought out evidence of how financial tools are used in the most natural setting possible. Because home buying finances proved to be very overwhelming, we scaled back to learning about financial health as a more general term. Since these are next generation home buyers, it is also more important they have general financial health before going into specifics of financial planning for home ownership.

We conducted a contextual inquiry with two financial games: Shady Sam (about loaning money) and Build your STAX (about investing money). We provided links to both games and gave participants roughly 10 minutes to explore each game. While they played the game we interjected to ask why they did something and their reasonings.

All participants performed fairly poorly in both games. From observing, we noticed this happened for two reasons: the concepts were difficult, and the games didn't introduce them effectively. The games were helpful in showing new perspectives and whetting their appetite but ultimately was not very effective as a tool for learning a lot of new material. The first game was tricky because participants couldn't figure out how to calculate loaning rates and rapid introduction of new terms made it difficult to keep up; the second game was too fast paced with little feedback. This meant if we wanted to proceed with a game, the instructions and set up would be crucial and lots of feedback is necessary.

Synthesis Break
After a contextual inquiry we performed an exercise called "Walk the Wall" where we posted up all our previous research, and synthesized design ideas, user needs, and questions to explore moving forward. 
Notes and insights from walking the wall activity
The full "walk the wall"

Speed Dating
Gamification is too suspended from reality; bite-sized and direct experiences better satisfy user needs.

We then conducted an activity called Crazy 8's, where each team member generated eight sketches in eight minutes. From these sketches we extracted underlying user needs. The top four needs we focused on for storyboarding were:

1. Personalized teaching - let user set their own goals.
2. Slowly introduce new topics, don't make the user feel dumb.
3. Connect with other people at a similar financial literacy level so you don't feel alone.
4. Help users think long term (focus on now vs. later).

Each team member then focused on one need, I focused on personalized teaching, and generated three storyboards, each increasingly pushing the user out of their comfort zone. For my storyboards, the most comfortable solution was talking 1-1 with a mentor, the riskier solution was talking to a conversational interface, and the riskiest was posting on online forums to seek advice. Other storyboards covered ideas of gamification, simulations, and conversations as well.

From the contextual inquiry, we found people do not find finances fun, and therefore want to spend as little time on it while learning the most information. We found that games are either fun and therefore not that helpful, or very informative but not that fun and too time consuming.
My Crazy 8 sketches
My three storyboards

From our research, we discovered the binary culture around being financially literate or illiterate, which makes students feel incompetent when they are unable to understand their personal finances.

But personal finance doesn’t have an objective right or wrong, it’s about what works for you. After a client meeting with Blend, we rephrased our original working from helping students making "smart" financial decisions to "effective" financial decisions. This is because smart indicates there is a smart choice and a dumb choice. But we want to promote students understanding their own goals and not aimlessly saving money because it seems smart. Rather, we want students to find what works for them based on crafted goals. 

Moving to prototyping, we considered how to help create a mentality shift to help students feel empowered and motivated to take control of their personal finances.

Prototype - Iteration 1
Leveraging existing trustworthy relationships is an effective method for learning personal finances.

As such, we created a solution for the financially curious: young adults who want to learn but don’t know where to start and mentors who want to help but don’t know how. 

Our cards serve as conversation starters. Students choose a card from their deck and read the prompt aloud while filling in the blanks with their own situations to begin discussion and receive personalized feedback on their goals. Mentors can then choose from a deck of cards with questions on them and read one aloud to ascertain how much their mentee knows about financial topics.

In our experience prototype testing, we gathered participant pairs who previously knew each other and were of similar age. We assigned one person to the role of mentor and the other to the mentee role. We found that the similar ages stimulated some great conversation and exposure to different methods for saving money, but not much could be taught to one another. Moving to the final iteration, we decided to narrow our scope from any relationship to be with just parent-student relations.​​​​​​​
Mentee deck of cards
Mentor deck of cards

Prototype - Final Design
It is important to situate users by providing structure in our experience with difficulty levels; hints and resources help with topical context.

The changes we made to the final design were scaffolding the cards by difficulty level (beginner, intermediate, advanced). We did this based on feedback from users that it took a while to read through all the cards and would prefer some sorting to have a better idea of where they would want to start. We also created three colors (purple, blue, red) that reflect the difficulty levels to further situate the users.

We also added hints and resources to help students and their parental figures when neither know how to answer a question or want to learn more. As such, during this activity both students and parents have an opportunity to learn about finance in general and about each other.

We presented our final design to the client and received feedback. From this feedback I have identified the following shortcomings which could be addressed if this project were to be continued.

1. Too much burden is placed on the parent. In this model we appear to put too much pressure on parents to know all the answers. Rather, we want to show that financial health is a life long learning journey and oftentimes parents don't know the answer, too, and this becomes a learning moment for both. Being able to watch a parent overcome struggles is a great motivator and good example for children. I would work on rephrasing the introduction and adding more sections to the cards to provide resources to learn.
2. The cards are too broad. If I were to continue this project I would add more cards that would be relevant to many different financial situations. Right now the cards are very general to avoid excluding a group, but to be more helpful I think cards that are more specific would be more useful for conversations.
The cards I created for the mentee deck
Full mentee deck of cards
The cards I created for the mentor deck
Full mentor deck of cards




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