Outfield/Infield: Field Research with IDEO.org

by jennifermshoop

I spent the better part of my first week on the job at Moneythink (now three weeks ago!) completing field research for our mobile application project with three incredible colleagues (and lovely people) from IDEO.org.  There is no better onboarding experience I could imagine, full-stop.  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.


{Our students at Christ the King Prep School completing some worksheets for us.  Image courtesy of IDEO.org’s esteemed John Won.}

Before I share the week’s many epiphanies (and I do mean epiphanies, in all its connotative glory — a word I do not take lightly thanks to a heavy application of James Joyce over the course of my graduate studies in literature), I should first mention the recurring feeling of moving into and out of zones of confidence and comfort over the course of the week.  Or rather, the feeling of blurring and then refocusing these zones as my perspective evolved.   I arrived imagining myself going into the outfield in a lot of ways — examining how youth that are underbanked, generally under-resourced, and overall economically distanced from the mainstream (and, to be candid, from my own experience) think about money.  In large part owing to IDEO.org’s human-centered design process, which I alternately shouldered and shadowed, I left with a radical reconceptualization of the playing field that left our teens playing the bases.  This grand shift in perspective is symptomatic of a range of other, smaller, adjustments and readjustments that had me moving from a position of insider to outsider and back again, from knowing to unknowing to knowing again, and so on.  (Perhaps this is the experience of all researchers, and if it is — wow.   I can’t help but connect the experience more broadly to tropes of Othering, The Subaltern, identity, and related literary jargon that occasionally haunt me.  We won’t go there today.)

But: let’s backtrack to the project itself.  Moneythink mentors urban, low-income youth in personal finance  through a near-peer mentorship model centered upon a 21-module Economic Opportunity Curriculum.  About a year ago, our CEO, Ted, noted and paired two important observations: a) nearly all of our students have smartphones and b) students make all of their financial decisions outside of school, i.e., outside of the Moneythink program, which runs in urban high schools.  Ted wanted 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.  He’d more or less walked us right into that tricky, highly topical hotspot of topics around behavior change, the quantified self, and personal tracking.  With this app, we’re pushing away from measuring financial literacy (i.e., awareness of financial tools, decisions, behaviors) and driving towards measuring financial capability  (financial behavior and decision-making).  There are a lot of smart people thinking about the latter (including the bright folks at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the D2D Fund, with whom I have had the good fortune of speaking), but there aren’t yet any  rigorously tested measures that tell us: “Yes, this person is a financially capable individual because she has done x, y, and z.”

At any rate, we contracted with IDEO.org, the non-profit wing of the design giant IDEO, and the development firm CauseLabs, to figure out what this might look like.  Following IDEO’s protocol, we spent the first week interviewing our students, our mentors, experts in youth engagement, and youth not enrolled in Moneythink to learn how our core demographic interacts with money and mobile.


{Students play our budgeting game while IDEO.org’s Rafael looks on in the upper right-hand corner.  Image courtesy of IDEO.org’s John Won.}

Below, a few top-of-mind epiphanies:

1.  For our teens, money is social.  Money comes from people, is freely and widely discussed with people, and is most often spent with or for people.  Even among the more financially independent teens we interviewed, money has not yet become “professional” or been conceptualized as a part of an economy beyond their own communities.  Many of the teens leverage their relationships with their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings, and significant others in order to access money, which they tend to receive sporadically. Our teens are also uninhibited when it  comes to talking about their personal finances with others.  I couldn’t determine whether this is part of a culture of oversharing that Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media have cultivated or whether there are narrower, demographic-specific forces at play (maybe all youth are more willing than I recall to divulge this information?  Maybe these youth come from communities in which families are more likely to loan money to one another, thus removing the taboo?)  Regardless, these teens seemed eager to share and interested in a solution that might require a friend or peer to approve/comment on spending and saving habits.  Finally, our youth often contribute back to their families if they are earning money or spend their money shopping and eating with friends.

2.  Money is earned sporadically.  The majority of our teens have not yet entered the workforce and receive money from family members on their birthdays, at Christmas, and through occasionally dispensations of “spending money.”  For this reason, budgeting, while an important lesson in our curriculum, feels remote for our teens.

3. Teens may face legitimate constraints around opening a savings account (or any bank account, for that matter).  Coming into the project, I had anticipated that one metric we might use for measuring financial health could be the number of students we had moved from operating on a cash-only basis to opening a savings account.  We discovered that, as mentioned above, many of our students have not yet entered the workforce, making a savings account an unlikely tool — and, further, making a mobile application designed to reward the act of savings challenging to implement from a logistical standpoint.  (If our teens receive money sporadically, this might mean only two or three opportunities per year to move money into savings.)  Secondly, some of our students on the West side of Chicago (and I am presuming this to be true in other urban areas) are undocumented and are therefore unable to open bank accounts.  Some of our mentors working primarily on the West side of the city estimated that up to 80% of their classes are undocumented!  Finally, branched banks are a scarcity in low-income urban areas — there are few financial incentives for banks to open in these communities.  We spoke with a representative from a big bank who mentioned that the individuals we serve tend to carry low balances and tend to run up overhead costs by calling customer service for account information, requiring additional support for everyday transactions, and using the in-branch services more than the average client.  There are potential solutions here (a fully online bank; credit unions; etc.) but given that we work in around 30 different communities across the U.S., this may take a long time to sort.

4.  Our teens are uniquely resourceful.  As I mentioned here, our teens display an admirable and innate resourcefulness.  During a budgeting exercise, my colleagues and I were wowed by the cleverness of their financial decision-making — they knew how make a dollar stretch in the most minute of ways, whether by getting rid of a data plan and using free WiFi at a known local spot, trading out a phone for a laptop with a messaging app installed, eating at home, finding bus vouchers through community services, etc.  Watching the four girls in my group pool these cost-savings strategies was nothing short of incredible — their instinct for saving was self-evident.  There were many other one-off instances of this behavior, including one student who, during a lesson on compound interest, suddenly perked up and said: “Why don’t you just put a lot of your money in right before they add the accumulated interest at the end of the month and then take it out?”  Though we explained that this strategy wouldn’t pan out, I was impressed with how quickly they were thinking about ways to optimize the return.

5.  Our teens are genuinely distanced from the mainstream and learn about personal finance from their friends.  I cannot tell you how many times I heard students ask practical, need-to-know questions like: “How do I open a bank account?” “How do I know what bank account is OK?” “Is a college loan a good idea?”  “How do I take out a college loan?”  “My friend said X account is the worst because they have the most fees.  Is that true?”  In sharing this with one of my friends at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, she responded: “And what happens when Moneythink isn’t there to answer those questions?  Do they just stop asking?  Where do they go?”  Observing the lack of information and the lack of resources that these students have around accessing financial products and financial information was just the sort of self-evident assessment that I needed to remind me of why the work so many are doing in the area of financial literacy is relevant and needed.

6.  Also, teens like selfies.  A stray thought, but we were struck by this common refrain throughout our interviews with teachers, mentors, and students.  There is something interesting to glean from this from a design standpoint — the smartphone’s design has popularized an entire genre of photography by virtue of its ease of use and its facility in self-expression.

More to come soon…!