HCD vs. Mission.

by jennifermshoop

I just enjoyed the most exhilarating and exhausting two-day workshop visioning around the future of our technology solution with our tech partners.  It was exhilarating in that taking a step back to look at the big picture and to dream really big about where we can go reminded me ever more poignantly of the mission I am working toward and how my day-to-day struggles pertain to those big social goals.  It reinvigorated a love of the product we’ve developed, almost made me nostalgic and proud of the amount of thought and effort we’ve put into this solution.  It made me feel unalone in my work on technology strategy, where I can often feel like an island given the small nature of our organization.  (And, to quote John Donne, no man is an island.) It was exhausting in that it required a lot of mental gymnastics, looking at our work across a big canvas and then diving down to study the finest minutiae — which actions should trigger which push notifications and how complex those schemas are (or aren’t) to implement; how we can scale back desired analytics reporting features into an MVP version (i.e., which metrics matter); whether or not the addition of a student’s school beneath his/her name is a valuable addition and the level of visibility different users should have, full-stop.  It was a lot of drilling deep and getting into the weeds, a lot of pulling and sharing of information, a lot of long pauses as we puzzled over potential solutions — and then a lot of sweeping up into Big Dream Talk.

It was all-around awesome.

And yet.  There was a cloying voice in my head that kept asking: “Shouldn’t we have the kids here?  Shouldn’t we be re-starting the process we undertook when we brought IDEO.org in to help us?  Is it OK to vision and build off of what we’ve already built without going back to the source?”

And yet.  We have learned a lot about our students and how they relate to our technology.  We know that there is a direct correlation between number of likes/comments received on a post and overall performance in the app.  We know that they “just want to know someone is listening.”  We know that certain types of classrooms are more optimized for tech adoption.  We know that students often are unable to see themselves as “savers” or as financially empowered because they do not believe they have the resources to do so (and by resources, I literally mean that they do not think that they are financial beings because they do not have enough money).  We know that students spend the majority of their free cash on food purchases and shoe purchases.  We know that they like to “flex” (a term new to me) their cash, to show off the stash of dollars that they have.  (What this suggests is problematic — lack of access to accounts; lack of understanding of security risks; desire to emulate what they’ve seen in pop culture, especially music videos; association of self-worth with cash holdings; etc.)  We know that they love emojis (the vast majority of posts are accompanied by them).  We know that they like points for points’ sake.  We know that they like to unlock surprises.  We know all of this based on tests we’ve run, conversations we’ve had, posts kids have made, and data analysis.  So, I came around to the view that I did have the students’ voices present in the room — just mediated, perhaps, by a lot of thinking and data analysis and reflections.

There was another strain at hand.  There were the clear comments, observations, and insights we’d gleaned (as outlined above) that pointed us in certain feature directions.  And then there were the mission-level, organizational-level hopes we had.  If the end goal is to help students make better financial decisions, there are certain…breaks? disconnects? between making a product that is fun and sticky and making a product that drives and reflects the performance of specific financial behaviors.  And often these things just don’t match up.  Is it OK to test a feature that may be more vitamin than painkiller?  Do we always need to shroud the vitamins in painkillers?  Is it OK to have a high-level, org-level idea informed by best practices in the field and to implement that feature even if users haven’t asked for it?  And, dare I say it, even if users have suggested the opposite?  Let me give you an example: we know that the social nature of our solution was one of the key value propositions for our students.  Time and time again, when asked why they used the app, they would say: “I liked seeing what other people were buying,” “I liked comparing my results to others,” “I liked that someone was listening.”  And we’d also see, in the data, that the more comments and likes they earned, the higher the retention rate.  And we’d notice that the more kids that were posting, the more likely that others were to post.  These are fairly obvious and even expected observations, but they are meaty and not-to-be-ignored, nonetheless.  There is something sticky and powerful and even natural to kids to be sharing information and to seek out and receive affirmation in the form of digital likes.

And yet.  When we’re thinking about our work from a financial outcome perspective, one idea we’d had was to include a “financial meter” modal that might pop up when students log in each week.  They answer three questions: did you save today? (respond to this by tapping a single dollar sign; two dollar signs; or three dollar signs to reflect the relative level of saving); did you spend money today? (again, three dollar sign options to reflect the amount of saving); and how do you feel about your finances? (with three or four possible smiley faces).  We think this would be fascinating in that we could gather aggregate trends about whether or not our kids are saving more and their overall affect around their financial status.  This would be powerful data for us as a program and would have the added benefit of making students feel like the tool is a bit more personal, a way to think about and store financial information about themselves.

And yet.  They haven’t asked for this; in fact, they seem most attracted to sharing moments.  And this would be the opposite.  How do you reconcile the HCD approach, listening carefully to the wants and needs of the user and only building to their specs, vs. a big mission around prevention?  Does HCD only work best when we have a painkiller solution on the table?  What about the vitamins?