projectPlutus – a creative hack weekend

This weekend I headed up to the Edinburgh TechCube to help out at a workshop hosted by Young Scot. The purpose of the workshop (code named projectPlutus after the Greek god of wealth) was to bring together a group of 16-20 year olds in a “hackathon" style event focusing on developing ideas of apps that’ll help young people with saving money. The event was sponsored by the Money Advice Service and also present were some folks from StormID who’ll be bringing the ideas to life.

Around 25 “young people” came along to Edinburgh for the weekend having been selected from a list of applicants. The experience and background of each person varied – some were studying computer science, some had experience of building websites and applications through to others whose interest lay in marketing and promotions. They did however have one key thing in common – they all formed part of the intended target audience for the application.

The weekend started with building user persona’s for the intended audience of the application. This started with the people in the room pulling together a view of the kind of websites and applications they used, attitudes towards money and saving, what they were doing in terms of work/study, as well as a bunch of other things. This information was put up onto a persona wall.

User persona board at #projectPlutus

Building on the information captured on the persona wall four teams were created to start researching the target user audience in more detail. They started brainstorming questions that they thought would be interesting to find out, questions like:
* how much money do you earn?
* where does your money go?
* what things did you buy last week that you didn’t really need?
* what’s the minimum wage for a 16 year old?

Using a variety of sources (such as information online, the MAS Financial Capability of 15-17 year olds report, and people in the room) the groups began finding answers to their questions, building up more detailed user personas and then sharing back to the wider group.

Teams reporting back on their research. #projectPlutus @YourMoneyAdvice @YoungScot @stormID

With a pretty good understanding of the target audience the group were then told a bit more about the purpose of the application. At this point they knew it was related to young people and to money, but they were now asked to start thinking about the idea of saving for a goal. It could be for something relatively short-term like buying concert tickets or a new pair of shoes, or for something longer-term like a car or a holiday.

With this in mind the group broke back out into teams to start discussing ideas for a potential app and like any good creative process the room was soon covered in post-it notes, sketch paper and flip-charts. Wandering between the groups myself and others from the Money Advice Service, Young Scot and StormID listened to the discussions happening within each group. Where needed we helped make suggestions about things to consider and different ways to look at tackling a problem – but on the whole discussions were free flowing and great ideas were starting to be put on paper.

After an hour-or-so it felt as though there may be a little too much focus on some of the low level details and as a consequence some of the great creative thinking was being held back, so at the suggestion of the folks from StormID everyone put down their sharpies and reformed as one big group. Two huge rolls of paper were rolled across the floor and everyone was asked to spend the next 45 minutes-or-so sketching out ideas for the future of money – the crazier the idea the better!

Ideas ranged from virtual-reality rooms that visualised all the money you had in piles, through to chips being implanted into your body that gave an electric shock each time you overspent, through to removing the concept of money and replacing it with trading chickens and favours

Sketching out ideas for the future of money #projectPlutus @YourMoneyAdvice @youngscot @stormID

Following this burst of creative thinking the teams re-grouped and set about evolving their initial ideas in a new light. Suddenly rather than worrying about the technicalities of what button needs to go where, and what labels are needed on a sign-up form the teams began designing in a more abstract manner – from polystyrene tamagotchi-type characters, to rainbow climbing dream-catchers, to plasticine modelled money wells!

As the first day came to a close each team presented where they were with their ideas to the rest of the group and after a quick de-brief from Young Scot everyone headed off for an evening of italian food and ghost tours!

#projectPlutus "DreamBase#

Sunday morning started with a re-cap from day one followed by each team providing constructive feedback on the other team’s ideas. There was then the rest of the morning to continue fleshing out some of the details, drawing up user journeys before an end of day idea pitch.

Pitch one – Money Magic
The first pitch was for an app called Money Magic. The team looked at someone who was struggling with debt but wanting to make an effort to save money. The user would input personal details such as their name, income, expenditures as well as a savings goal. The app would provide you with a savings plan to help you meet that goal. As a motivation to help people save the team also introduced the idea of having 'money games' that the user would be able to play through the course of their savings plan. Adopting a similar model to that of Candy Crush, in order to gain more lives or to progress through levels within the game the user would have to meet their savings goals.

#projectPlutus "Money Magic" app pitch

Pitch two
The 2nd team to present their idea took on a very methodical and pragmatic approach. They looked at how influencing someone’s behaviour in their day-to-day life was key to helping them save. Recognising that all the “little things” you buy can soon add up their idea for an app was to help you calculate how much you were spending whilst out shopping (through scanning item barcodes to obtain the item details and cost, or through manually inputting). The app would provide advice as to cheaper alternatives or other places to purchase that item from. You’d also tell the app about what you wanted to save for, and money that you saved through purchasing cheaper items (or through deciding not to make the purchase) would go towards your savings goal.

#projectPlutus day 2 "name to be decided!" app pitch

Pitch three – Money Advice Pal
The third app pitch was from the ‘Money Advice Pal’ this idea stemmed from the notion of having a tamagotchi-type pet that you had to keep alive and well through saving money. Over the course of the weekend the team nurtured their initial idea into a really strong concept that helped promote saving for a rainy day. This was something that they acknowledged was an important, but difficult challenge – saving for a “thing” meant you had a clear goal, but saving for emergencies was harder to achieve.

The idea for the Money Advice Pal, or MAP, was that you created a profile of yourself along with a customisable avatar or character. You told the app a bit about yourself, such as your income and recurring expenditure. And as you made purchases you’d input those details into the app, categorising them so that you can look back on your spending habits. The more that you used the app, and the more money that you put aside for savings you were reward with points that allowed you to further customise your avatar.

The team also looked at the power of visualisation, they took forward an idea from day 1 of being able to watch your money grow as you saved. Along with this also had a concept of bubbles representing a users various spending categories, these bubbles would change size and colour the more or less you spent.

#projectPlutus "Money Advice Pal" app pitch

Pitch four – Dream Base
The fourth and final app came from Dream Base. They recognised that savings and goals can be quite dry, boring things. Instead they liked to think of goals as dreams, and that saving was all about chasing your dreams. Their idea took on a very colourful, visual theme introducing dream catchers and dream makers!

When you first went to the app you gave some information about yourself, you also created a visual representation of your dream – this may be a picture of a beach if you wanted to save for a holiday, or maybe your dream car. Having a picture of ‘the thing’ meant you were able remind yourself of the what it was you were chasing.

Whenever you put money aside you’d record this in the app where you’d be able to see how close you were to realising your dream. And if at any point you were struggling, needed advice, or didn’t know how you were able to save more money you’d be able to call an advice line where you could speak to expert ‘dream makers’.

#projectPlutus "Dream Base" app pitch

Across all the teams there were so many fantastic ideas, and a lot was achieved over the course of just one weekend. The challenge now is to turn these ideas into something real. Over the next couple of months StormID will be working with Young Scot and the Money Advice Service to build an application taking the best elements from across all the teams. Where possible we’ll be involving the teams throughout this process, and all being well we’ll have something available in app stores from the early 2014. 


Money Habits

Having joined the Money Advice Service I figured that I ought to have a look at how I’m managing my money. In the past I’ve neither been particularly good or bad about it and like a lot of people I’ve spoken to I’d have a rough idea of how much money was in my account but would often loose track of all the incidental expenditures. At the end of the month before pay day taking cash out of the ATM was attempted with crossed fingers!

I’ve been using an application called Toshl to help me track everything. Initially I was using a spreadsheet to log everything but quickly found that despite my best intentions updating it on the fly was difficult and I soon stopped doing it.  Switching to Toshl made things a lot easier.

Having tracked my spending at quite a granular level for the past few months I’ve learnt a few things.

Monitoring predicted spend vs actual spend
One of the most valuable things I’ve been able to do is to try and predict what I’ll spend over the course of the next month in terms of recurring payments (rent, travel etc), “necessitates" (food, the gym etc) and costs of "just living" (music, alcohol, coffee etc). The first time I did this I purposfully didn’t look at any previous spend. I worked out what I thought I spent and over the course of the next month tracked that against my actual spend.

I knew that things like buying records and drinking coffee would feature fairly high up on the list, but I was quite surprised as to how quickly all those impulse £3 bargain basement record finds soon added up! Being able to see this happen allowed me to adjust my habits quickly rather than it being a shock at the end of the month.

Being realistic
I’ve started setting myself a budget that is tracked on a daily and weekly basis. Any money over or under spent from the previous period is rolled into the next. I’ve found having this granular breakdown quite useful and helps me think about the things coming up over the course of the week. I’ve also found that it brought out my competitive nature. Having the simple notion of a green +% next to a day or week's spend encouraged me to not overspend.

I’ve adjusted my budget a few times and it sounds really obvious but being realistic about your budget is important. Initially I was too lenient and I was able to stay within my budget without changing any of my behaviours. I then went to the other extreme of setting a budget that I really couldn’t achieve, with this I found that whilst I considered a lot more what I was spending my money on the times I did exceed my budget I /really/ exceeded it and stopped being as motivated.

Expect the unexpected
In the first month that I was tracking my spending something came up that blew my budget. I figured that really sucked but, hey it was a one off. And then the following month something of similar value also came up. This made me think back over previous months and pretty much each month there was something that came up of a reasonably significant value that was mostly unexpected. I now try and factor these unexpected costs in, and when they don’t occur that’ll be a nice added bonus!

I’ve started looking into the data that I’ve collected in more detail and will probably follow up with another post in the near future with details on that!


One week in...

Today I'm one week (and one day – I'm a little late writing this) into the role at the Money Advice Service and I have to say so far it feels as though I never took any time off at all ...but in a great way! There's a couple of projects that I've been able to dive into and that really helped get me up to speed.

Amongst other things I've been looking how we can improve the user registration and email newsletter sign-up process. This has involved looking at best practice and design patterns across the web and translating those against the needs of our users. In the main its quite a simple thing but catering for the various edge cases adds some complexity. I intend to write up our findings in a more generic fashion some time soon!