5 principles for designing conversations that lead to action

These are the kinds of text messages we get every day. Only 9% of low-income students receive their college degree in 4–6 years. And the main barrier to a degree is money. These students are left on their own to navigate complex financial aid systems and make some of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.

At Moneythink, we empower under resourced students by supporting financial decision-making through coaching and technology. Our coaches message students over text — giving rapid access to quality support.

Because of warm-fuzzy texts like this (and the results of qualitative and quantitative data analysis), we are gaining confidence in our hypotheses about the best ways to give students more confidence, more financial security, and less stress. Over the past year of texting, we have honed in on a set of principles that guide the experience and voice of our coaching. They have really become our “secret sauce” — and we have had requests to share out our principles and process for developing them.

So, here it is! In this share-out, you will find just a few of some of our most powerful and, sometimes, non-obvious principles. You might find these particularly interesting if your team is…

  • designing for a chatbot, human-powered messaging service, or a hybrid
  • designing a coaching service (especially in health or finances)
  • designing for under-resourced populations that face scarcity
  • designing interventions for behaviors that have low desirability (getting people to do something they don’t want to do)

Under-resourced students already experience scarcity of time, money, calories, sleep, and sometimes even shelter — and their cognitive bandwidth is spent mentally managing these resources. We identify the most critical financial barriers on the pathway to college and do everything we can to minimize those barriers for the student.

The problem is not in cultivating an intention to be financially responsible, it is in the intention-action gap. Designing interactions that de-bias the student’s context (rather than focusing on persuading the student to push through the barriers) recognizes and respects the real scarcity that the student faces and meets them where they are at.

Don’t wait for a student to guide the interaction, share goals, or suggest deadlines. Recommend to the student the goal they should be working on next and default them into a deadline.

Thinking about what to ask a coach or when to get something done requires a lot of cognitive load that can quickly exhaust an over-burdened student. By using defaults, we minimize the friction to setting goals.

Make it just as easy for a student to say they did something vs. didn’t do something. Never ask a student to answer a question where their answer makes them reflect negatively on their self-identity (because they will ostrich).

Making responses like “trying to find time to do it” as equally valid as “completed it,” recognizes the real struggle of navigating and completing these complex financial processes. Just allocating time and attention is progress.

Nudge the exact right student with the exact right size of a task at the exact right time and provide everything they need to complete the task.

Providing information alone (even if well-organized) is often intimidating and only empowers the students with the bandwidth resources to self-navigate the information.

Use behavioral science levers to instill a sense of urgency. For example:

  • Defaulting students into deadlines that are 3–5 days away as opposed to weeks away (limited attention)
  • Suggesting that recommended behaviors are a norm of their peers (social proof)
  • Making long-term negative consequences tangible in the immediate to trigger FOMO (loss aversion).
With preventative interventions, students are not facing painful consequences in the immediate and may not feel urgency to engage. Leaning on subtle behavioral levers spurs students to take the desired action early and leaves them feeling more confident about their financial health.

Good principles are ones that the team uses actively. Here are some learnings and inspiration we have found along the way:

  • Principles feel the most helpful when they are specific and speak to how to handle trade-offs. Jared M. Spool wrote a great article on “Creating Great Design Principles.”
  • Leverage behavioral science — especially if you are designing for behavior change. Check out ideas42’s list of behavioral principles to get started.
  • Just start and let your principles mature as you regularly use them and iterate. The list of principles we have now are non-obvious — they have come from tons of exposure hours texting and talking with our students.
  • Remember that the goal of developing principles is not to have a perfect, finished artifact. The goal is to enable the team to have a common language for weighing design possibilities in a way that stays grounded in our user’s reality. Good design principles enable healthy discourse and are owned and contributed to by everyone who has a hand in building the user experience.

Working on something analogous? Reach out and tell us about it. We love to learn with others. ❤

Learn more about Moneythink’s approach to design and reach out to say hello! Transformative progress requires leaders in technology, data, and design to work together. We work out of San Francisco & Oakland and we love making friends with other humans who believe in the power of design and are obsessed with building a more equitable future.

Originally published at Moneythink Design’s medium.com page on April 25, 2018.

We're a #nonprofit that empowers under-resourced students to achieve #collegesuccess by supporting #financial decision-making through #coaching and technology.