There are two types of people in this world. Type 1s, who see money as an abstract thing, separate from themselves. Something to be put to work and moved around and used to make more money. People who say “speculate to accumulate” and “arbitrage” without any irony or self-consciousness.
They tend to be rich. Or spend a lot of time and energy trying to be rich.
Then there’s the rest of us Type 2s (I’d wager the vast majority) for whom money is deeply, deeply personal. Interwoven through our fears, desires, successes and regrets. How much money we’re born into sets the tone of our lives and guides most, if not all, of our life decisions. Money or its lack has the ability to make you feel a cushioned sense of security, or profound and persistent shame.
For most of us, money isn’t so much about the physical currency, or the numbers on a ledger somewhere. It’s all tied up in who we are, where we fit into the world, how we want our lives to be, and our day-to-day reality.
Look to the language to reveal the feels
There’s a huge contrast between the way that the financial services industry talks about money (they’re firmly in type 1 category) and the way that we type 2s talk about it. Even those banks that have invested heavily in digital can’t help but create an emotionless customer experience.
I don’t want to “manage my money”. I’m not Scrooge McDuck, swimming in great piles of cash. My money isn’t a business, or a football team. Why does it need me to wear a suit and shiny shoes? The great likelihood is that I’m not managing anything. Either I have money and it’s just sitting there, or I don’t and I’m barely managing, full stop.
I don’t want to “arrange an overdraft”. If I’m in need of an overdraft, it means I probably don’t have enough money to cover all my bills every month. I’m not arranging anything. I’m broke and I’m worried and I’m hoping that if I put my card into the cash machine, it will let me take out enough until payday so I can buy food and travel to work.
And I definitely have no desire to “check my balance”. If my balance is positive, I have no need to keep an eye on it. If I’m skint, the last thing I want is to be confronted with that fact in big red numbers.
We’re all so used to the sterile corporate-speak that accompanies our financial interactions that we’ve forgotten the purpose of money. That it should facilitate our lives. That it should serve us and not the other way round.
The psychology of personal economics
The fact is, when most of us talk about money, we do so in the context of our lives. We talk about our “relationship’ with money. We use emotive language and sayings about money (money is the root of all evil, money makes the world go round, money can’t buy you happiness).
When we talk about our ownership of money, we use terms that describe our emotional attachment: loss, investment, hard-earned, wasted.
Not having enough money arouses feelings of anxiety, helplessness, anger, frustration, greed, envy and desperation. It can also stimulate desire, ambition, drive and determination.
Money, in a personal context, is really personal.
It’s this aspect of money that interests me the most. Not the number crunching, or the speculation, or the clever conjuring tricks to make digits move from a ledger in the UK to a ledger in Taiwan in seconds. It’s the psychology of personal economics.
Without addressing the emotion behind money, FinTech just gives us smarter pipes and quicker transactions.
The challenger banks are a great case in point. They have shown an ability to delight their users in small ways: instant notifications on purchases made with their cards (together with cute emojis of the sushi you just bought from Itsu).
There is no denying the practical value of being able to track your spending. Just like there’s a real, tangible benefit to being able to send payments in a few taps, across borders, for minimal fees.
But I worry that all we’re doing is creating more efficient versions of what we’ve always had. Transactional interactions. Numbers going up. Numbers going down. Money moving from account to account.
In our efforts to automate the outdated, dreary processes of old (writing cheques — and forgetting to write in the cheque stub, so some purchases remained a mystery; standing in a long line at the bank with a paying-in book) we’ve also wiped out the very human aspects of how money affects our lives.
Can FinTech improve our emotional AND financial lives?
Yes it can. And if you are building consumer FinTech, then I believe this is a big part of your job.
- Improve the customer experience beyond your app
FinTechs have shown us how beautifully designed technology makes banking processes faster, better, more useful and less painful. Opening a new bank account in minutes, from your sofa, is brilliant. Sending money to hundreds of countries worldwide, with lower transfer fees, is brilliant.
But there is more we can do. Design products specifically to improve customers’ lives, beyond simply improving processes.
As Duena Blomstrom writes on her Emotional Banking blog, the opportunity FinTechs have is to make banking more human. More in service of us. To spend time understanding people’s emotions around money and how that impacts their decisions. To help guide them to make better decisions that benefit their lives. To design technology that increases customer financial capability and resilience.
2. Change the face and culture of financial services
My biggest hope for FinTech is that it fosters a new culture of empathy within financial services. For this to happen, we need far greater diversity within FinTech leadership and wider teams. We still have a way to go on this. A lot of the poster children for FinTech look remarkably similar to the old guard.
Interestingly, I’ve met with many traditional banks recently. One of the more striking things was that — at least within the innovation teams — I saw more diversity than in most FinTechs. However, the decision-makers are still overwhelmingly white and male.
It’s hard to design for customer needs outside of your own lived experience and that shows in the products.
We spend a lot of time at Lifetise designing for the emotion behind the money. If I want to help you have a better understanding of, and relationship with, your money, then I need to address the very real feelings you have. I need to help you overcome any anxiety or uncertainty you feel. I need to reflect your reality and show you your options without judgment or condescension.
In other words, I need to treat you as a real-life person.