How might we help college students who acknowledge poor spending behavior, to make informed financial choices?

Constraining & Assumption

We constrained to design for students in colleges because:
  1. Rising student debts plus poor financial literacy have made it critically challenging for college students to properly manage their money. There understanding of the financial systems today has a national impact in the recent future.
  2. Being in a college town, we had reliable first-hand research opportunity with both students and subject matter experts to develop rich insights.

We recognized we fell in the target demographic, and our biases could creep into the design. We shared our biases about finances and dependencies with each other and established that it was fair to assume that college students dependent on their parents do not care as much about financial literacy.

Understanding Financial Literacy in college students

We interviewed students to learn more about their spending behavior, and their finacial literacy situation. We let the conversations flow and probed whenever something interesting surfaced.

To get a crash course on the student-finance situation we interviewed the admin staff at the Financial Aid Office and the Financial Literacy Office.

Understanding the Design Space

We put together a mind map of what we knew or had evidence of. The 5 main categories are inspired by Courtney Gallagher’s The Better Mind Map on Medium.
The activity served as a base for brainstorming as our ideas were rooted in the map.

Understanding Behavior Change

The book - Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard talks about that in order to create change, the elephant (emotional energy) and rider (planning and analyzing) in the brain must cooperate.

This led us to split the yet-to-be designed interaction: the user must view the consequences (psychology) and the reason behind it (Math) before approving an unwise purchase.

Framing the problem & Ideation

We brainstormed over 20 ideas. Using a combination of agreed-upon logic, we iterated on each other’s ideas and multiple rounds of sketching led to 4 compelling concepts.

Shopping Puzzle Interruption

Research showed financial decisions were a behavior problem, interruptions change that behavior.

Social Check-in

Family and social factors heavily influence financial literacy according to interview and secondary research.

Relocation/Job Comparison

There are no services in the market like this which cater to college students.

Financial Literacy Chatbot

There is currently no help actions during the payment process.

Clutch team (client) explicitly indicated interest in the Shopping Puzzle Interruption idea in a mid-week check-in with them. We recognized the other ideas had interesting bits that needed to be coupled to make a more compelling concept.

Co-designing with the Director of Financial Literacy at Indiana University helped us definge the ecosystem and the scope based on real cases and anecdotes.

Concept Refinement

Our goal was to prevent users from making habitual impulsive purchases and catch them in the act informing them of consequences. Putting on our sketching hats again, we designed different interactions that were playful, educational and didn’t feel like a drag.

Interaction Design

At first we wanted to have dual authentication system for payments that would show how that purchase affects their budget. We realized it was pointless to do so if the said purchase wasn’t unwise and in fact, would just annoy them. Given the scope of the project we focused on the main interaction: approving a payment.
Initial ideas for interaction

Concept + Usability Testing

We wanted to test the intuitivemess of our interface, whether or not people understood the purpose of the interaction. Participants were confused about... well everything: how to interact with our prototype, what the icons represented, and the purpose of the interactions.

We were confident about the interaction. The copy however, needed to communicate better. It took a while to refine copy to eliminate any possible confusion. We sought constant feedback from anyone who would walk by.


Andy is your regular college kid who is in debt,  8 alarms to get out of bed,  scrolls through Facebook during boring lectures, and tries to find a balance between school, socializing & personal goals.

Biggest Concern: Monthly expenses

With every payday, Andy believes he’s got enough money so he treats himself with something, for example, new headphones. Eventually, he needs groceries and then, unexpected school supplies. Quite often, he’ll grab a quick bite before class.

As the month end gets close Andy realizes he doesn’t have enough to cover the rent and utilities.

Meet Yikes!

Our research reinforced that financial habits are behavior based. The most successful way to change a habit is to interrupt during the habitual behavior.
Yikes is a dual authorization payment system where users view consequences (Psychology) and the reason (Math) before approving the transaction.

Why authorize a payment

Yikes is an opt-in feature for those who acknowledge their impulsive shopping leads to poor financial health.

If their purchase is unwise (calculated by an algorithm that leverages data from the bank) they will be notified. Yikes respects their spending habits and doesn’t interrupt every payment.
How this changes behavior

Through research, we found that for behavior change it is imperative to interrupt the act. Multiple interruptions will force people to reflect during their act and make them think about their behavior.

An interruption draws attention to the habitual act makes people aware of the issue and over time, allows them to alter their spending behavior.

By opting-in, people have already taken an important step towards change. The interruption serves as a reminder sent by their rational state of mind.


Know when to stop research
Often projects can give the feeling that we don’t understand the subject well enough. We should be cautious to avoid long streches of unguided research. Every design is just an attempt to learn the problem better. We must keep moving since the project timeline isn’t going to change.

Can’t solve for Everyone
Many design problems are complex and cannot be solved by one ‘the design’. As designers, we should use our Judgement to appropiately scope and frame the design space without being too ambitious. Starting small and solving smaller challenges add up to large behavorial level changes. 

Involve experts
Interviewing experts is like going through a bootcamp on a topic. They understand the domain better than anyone else and are full of anecdotal insights. Evaluating concepts with them is a great method to vet design directions; co-designing is even better.

Selling design is Design
Design work doesn’t happen in isolation. Selling design to get buy-ins is as important as design work itself. In terms of action, this would mean that presentation decks should be designed, shown around, iterated on before calling it done.
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