As part of a design exercise for a potential employer, I created a preliminary research and branding document for Pyg, a fictional budget planning app.
I’ve posted an excerpt of the exercise below, which represents about 8 hours of work. It’s edited for clarity and brevity.
(Due to confidentiality agreements, I can’t share the original brief or the name of the company.)
Stakeholder Interview Questions
I’d typically start a project by asking stakeholders about their target customers, strategy, and team. If I wasn’t hearing well-formed answers for one or more of these questions, I’d recommend conducting user research to gain more clarity around the project.
- What types of things are they saving up for?
- Are they at a specific stage in life? (For example: children, young professionals, new families, post-retirement, etc.)
- Do they have full autonomy over their finances, or can other people (like spouses, dependents, or parents) control their budgetary decisions?
- What’s their level of technological literacy?
- How would you describe their current financial standing? (For example: are they trying to escape from debt, or are they just looking to save money for big-ticket items?)
- How do they currently manage their finances? Have they used budget planning apps before?
- Are they paid a living wage, or do they struggle from paycheck to paycheck?
- Are they receiving a stable, consistent income, or are they freelancers / contractors?
- Will they consistently use one currency, or will they travel frequently between countries?
- What is this product’s business model?
- How does the team plan to differentiate the product from the many budgeting apps out there, from Simple and You Need a Budget to Mint and MoneyWell?
- Can the user sign up for the product on their own, or does someone else grant them access? (For example, Even sells their app to employers, who then provide it as a company benefit to their employees.)
- What’s the desired implementation timeline for shipping a v1 of this product?
- Which platforms would the team like to support at launch?
- How large is the product team?
- Has any back-end work been completed yet, like building the third-party integrations to banks and financial tools?
- Does the company developing this product have a pre-established design system or pattern library that I should adhere to?
- Is it feasible for us to automatically detect the appropriate budget category (like “Rent” or “Groceries”) for individual transactions?
- What are the median and average number of daily transactions we expect users to make?
- What are the median and average number of financial accounts we expect users to add to the product?
After interviewing stakeholders, I’d ask them to fill out a Business Model Canvas, helping us achieve a shared consensus around our intended USP. If this wasn’t feasible within their timeline, I’d send them a document like the one below.
Budget planners are a mature and crowded market. According to The Wirecutter, there are 25–50 cross-platform personal finance apps, focusing on everything from home budgeting to investments. There are clear market leaders, like Mint, alongside products that offer world-class user experience and support, like The Wirecutter’s picks of You Need a Budget and Simple.
After conducting competitive analysis of 15 apps in this space1, it also seems like most of the traditional vectors for building a break-out product are unavailable to us. Many budgeting apps are free or very cheap, so it would be difficult to compete on price. The leading applications integrate with every major bank and financial service, so it would be hard for us to rely on deeper integration with a financial partner. And if we go upmarket to focus on businesses, CFOs or CPAs, we’ve entered another product category that might dramatically increase our scope for an MVP.
That being said, I have a few ideas for core value propositions that might differentiate us from the pack. 2
Most budgeting apps are designed to be personal, tailored to single people or couples. But what if a group of people wants to manage or discuss a budget together?
For example, let’s say a small co-op or nonprofit needs a way to manage their shared expenses, or if parents want to make their family expenses more transparent to their kids. On top of the features you’d expect in a smartphone or web budget planning app, these people need a way to present and collaborate around their expenses from the couch or the conference room. This could take the form of a connected TV application to display graphs and charts, or a “living room” mode for the web app’s UI.
Job suggestion algorithms
If customers aren’t meeting their spending goals, we could partner with gig-economy startups like Lyft and TaskRabbit to suggest opportunities for supplementing their income. We could use machine learning to suggest relevant gigs by analyzing their work history and past transactions. It’s possible we could negotiate a revenue-share or referral agreement with these companies, letting us keep the app affordable.
Budgeting for kids
Kids are getting their first smartphones at younger and younger ages. In 2016, children received their first smartphone at an average of of 10.3 years old. Many of these phones support NFC payments made from prepaid debit cards, providing an opportunity for us to help kids track the money they’re already spending from their smartphones. We could optimize the app for small dollar amounts, and provide a separate interface for parents to help coach their kid’s progress towards financial fitness.
Out of these three concepts, I think a budgeting app for children has both the largest potential market and the fewest privacy concerns. 3
We’re targeting children ages 9–16 who receive money from their parents or, if they’re adolescents, from after-school / summer jobs. They’re saving up for aspirational items. They’re tech-literate and spend a lot of time on their smartphones and tablets: in fact, they may not even own a laptop.
Since they’re kids, this is likely their first budget planner. We plan to pursue a SaaS model paid for by the child’s parents.
The Wirecutter describes four categories in an effective household budget: fixed expenses (like rent and student loans), variable expenses (like eating out and shopping), savings, and intermittent expenses (like medical bills.) Because parents pay for a child’s fixed or intermittent expenses, a kid’s budget should only contain variable expenses and savings.
It might make sense to suggest smart defaults for a kid’s budget categories, including “Snacks / Eating Out”, “Media” (e.g. books, games, and apps), “Toys / Electronics”, “Outdoor Fun” (e.g. movies and concerts), “Transportation”, “Gifts”, “Clothes”, “Makeup”, and “Charity ”.
According to a 2016 press release from the American Institute of CPAs, the average weekly allowance is $67.80 per month. By contrast, adults typically spend an average of $90–$100 per day. This data lets us make a few educated guesses around kids’ spending habits.
- If they spend money regularly, they have one or two transactions per day of $1–$2 each.
- If they buy things that are priced similarly to what adults purchase, they would quickly deplete their allowance and have a very low balance for multiple consecutive days.
- If they save all or most of it, they’re making very few transactions.
We can validate these guesses with research, and design for the most common behaviors accordingly.
I’ve arbitrarily assumed that kids typically have 1–4 financial accounts: cash, prepaid debit cards or gift cards, and perhaps a basic checking / savings account created with their parents. (Given the low net worth of most children, I’m assuming gift cards could represent a significant portion of their budget.)
The product’s mission is to help kids better understand their spending, and learn the core concepts of managing money and living with a budget.
We’re assuming kids don’t have credit cards, and thus won’t need to recover from debt. If they owe their parents money (for example, by breaking a valuable household item), the parents can always withhold their allowance.
For the sake of keeping this exercise simple, we have as much time as needed to ship an MVP, and we’re not working with a pre-existing design system. We hope to support web, iOS and Android out of the gate. There aren’t any hiring or budgetary bottlenecks that would prevent us from building out the front-end right away.
According to The Wirecutter, Mint tries to automatically assign budget categories and frequently makes mistakes, so we’ll require kids to manually categorize their expenses in order to keep the scope down.
Below are a few topics I’d be interested in exploring further, or discussing with the team, if I had more time.
Depending on the relationship between a parent and child, privacy can be a fraught issue. With a cash allowance, a child doesn’t have to tell their parents what they’ve spent their money on, but this changes with a budgeting app. Is it possible to give kids a certain level of discretion around their expenses without violating parental consent laws like COPPA?
This product concept is predicated upon a zero-sum envelopes-based budgeting system, similar to You Need a Budget. Is that the best way for kids to learn?
Is it technically feasible to retrieve a gift card’s balance?
A rough branding concept
I rarely do branding work, but wanted to add a name and logo to the prototypes I planned to deliver for this exercise.4 I timeboxed this to 45 minutes.
Ideally, I wanted something that would be approachable and appealing to kids. I brainstormed product names related to some core product themes, including parent / child conversations around finance, the process of learning financial fitness, and the ways kids have traditionally interacted with money in Western cultures.
This led me to research piggy banks, where I learned that some of the earliest coin jars were made with a type of clay called “pygg”. I shortened this to Pyg. which seemed to embody the youthful appeal and simplicity appropriate for this product.
For my competitive analysis, I looked at the apps YNAB, Simple, EveryDollar, Toshi, Qapital, Mint, Clarity Money, Mvelopes, CountAbout, GoodBudget, Spendee, HomeBudget, HelloWallet, Exeq, and Personal Capital. ↩
I spent the majority of my time on the exercise brainstorming a unique value proposition. This was pretty time-consuming, because I kept coming up with ideas that other products had already built! For example, I had an idea for an Unroll.me-like service that would let you automatically cancel recurring subscriptions, but Clarity Money already has something similar.
I now have a newfound respect for companies who manage to introduce something truly original inside a saturated space. ↩
The phrase “privacy concerns” refers to the “Job suggestion algorithms” idea, and is used here as a euphemism for “upsettingly dystopic technology.” ↩
Due to constraints on my time, I was unable to complete any prototypes before the exercise’s deadline. ↩