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How can mobile technology improve low-income lives?

Imagine you don't have the option to eat out for one week. Now imagine that your grocery budget for the entire week is $36.94. How would you plan your meals?

This project began with a curiosity about how we might design mobile apps specifically for people in low-income brackets. Why mobile apps? For starters, most low-income people have smartphones. Mobile technology is also uniquely positioned to help with a very important problem. Recent research suggests poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on people that they have little bandwidth left to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty, like go to night school, search for a new job, or even remember to pay bills on time. The reason most smartphone apps exist is to simplify our lives. How can we make them work better for the people who need them most? 

Interviews, observation, and an empathy experiment 

The hardest part about designing for someone who's not yourself is accessing them. My research approach was pretty scrappy: I stood in front of a New York City HRA office (that's where people can go to apply for government benefits like housing assistance and Medicaid), chatting with passerby and asking people to meet me at Starbucks for longer interviews.

I learned tons (TONS!) from people, but I also wanted to experience a piece of the cognitive struggle first-hand. So I took the food stamp challenge for one week (thanks for the inspiration, Cory Booker!), purchasing food with only the monetary equivalent of what one would receive in the US federal government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (colloquially called food stamps). In the state of New York, SNAP payments break down to $5.28 per day on average. These are the groceries I purchased for the week.

This certainly wasn’t a heroic feat — anyone can do it, and in fact, millions of people do it every day. But by feeling just a sliver of what it’s like, my contextual understanding deepened in ways that wouldn’t be possible through any other kind of research. 

After lots of thinking, feeling and synthesizing, I realized most of the issues with living on this kind of budget tied back to where I started: the cognitive load of it all. It takes intense mental focus to figure out how to live on scarce resources, and it's all compounded when one has tons of working responsibilities and commitments. The issues I ultimately felt were most well-suited to be solved with an app included:

Math: Figuring out how to stretch every dollar efficiently while staying within budget parameters.

Decision fatigue: Tradeoffs and determining which foods are the right choices.

Lots of running around: The essential yet time-consuming task of visiting several grocery stores in order to scout and find the best prices, coupons, etc.

Thinking through concepts with paper

I started using paper to play with concepts because it was the quickest way to get people's reactions to an idea. It was also beneficial to hear what they had to say about core functions and features without the distraction of a shiny interface.

People are given their SNAP checks once a month, so my premise was that someone could use a planner to work out how they'd spend their money at the beginning of the month, with pages to plan meals and log expenses week-by-week.

When I showed this prototype to someone I interviewed, I learned a few things. First, consistent with what a civic designer once told me, it’s typical for people on SNAP to do one big monthly shopping trip. The weekly shopping list concept, then, needed some re-working. In addition, there was interest in smartphone apps to help with grocery budget planning, scouting deals and couponing.

 

Developing digital mocks

When I started sketching mocks, the first version was all about mobile payments. What if people could make SNAP purchases from their phones, keep their loyalty cards in the same place, and track their spending over time?

Then I went back to my original goal of reducing cognitive load to make grocery shopping easier, and my priorities around making things like mathematics, decision fatigue and physical store visits simpler. I wanted to come up with the simplest navigation possible and sketched dozens of different versions of the app before landing on a design.

A few product design decisions I came to along the way included: 

  • Prices are the most important piece of information. When presented with a list of prices, the total amount should live at the bottom, where people naturally expect it. That means reserving the entire bottom of the screen for price information instead of navigation.
  • Coupons for list items should be stored in a spot that's immediately accessible when someone wants to use them. Same with loyalty cards.
  • Reminders and notifications are powerful tools for freeing up cognitive resources and fighting forgetfulness. Some opportunities include reminding someone to use the coupons they saved while they're physically shopping at a store and reminding someone how much they have left in their budget — and when they're close to running out.
  • Beyond reducing cognitive load lies the possibility of behavior change. It's frighteningly common for people to run out of money and, consequently, run short on food by the end of each month. The Budget screen is a first attempt at helping people better manage their spending by providing simple data visualizations. There are plenty more interesting opportunities to give people small, incremental wins that prompt behavior change over time, and this would be a direction I'd like to explore further in the future.

Prototyping interactions and honing the app

The latest exploration is a concept app I call Pinch because it helps pinch every penny for those on tight budgets. Unlike other grocery apps, Pinch puts your budget first and is designed to make saving money easier at every step — from planning your grocery list to paying with coupons. Here are a few of the main features I envision:

  1. Find the best prices for items as you add them to your list. The app would scrape price data from APIs and partner with local grocery stores to surface sale prices and coupons. You can choose which stores to include in your collection as you comparison shop.
  2. See how purchases impact your budget as you add and remove items from your list. Simple charts and graphics help you understand your spending over time.
  3. Filter your view by store while you're shopping, and view items grouped by category for ease of use.
  4. Access loyalty cards and coupons in one place when you're ready to pay. You can get to your "Wallet" in one tap from the wallet icon at the top-right side of the screen.
  5. Get reminders right when you need them. Choose to be notified about deals and coupons while you're shopping or reminded when you're close to going over-budget for the month.
  6. See top sales in local grocery stores around you each week. Just tap the sale tag icon at the top of the screen for a quick list.

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