Unlocking empowerment for poor customers: Three tips for financial service providers

posted Jun 7, 2016, 9:07 PM by Ignacio Mas

 [From NextBillion blog, 7 June 2016] 

What do we expect financial services to bring to the lives of poor people? I would say: more options on how to manage one´s circumstances and opportunities, and a sense of confidence and control over one´s future. A sense of empowerment, in other words.

While the feeling of empowerment must come from within, there is much that financial institutions can do to nurture it among customers through their services. Based on recent work on customer empowerment that I did with CGAP´s Customers at the Center team, there are three key notions that financial institutions must convey to their customers through their actions and offerings.


The starting point for customers is a sense of being respected. For the provider, that means accepting customers for who they are, without passing judgment about how they live their lives, the choices they make, or the outcomes they have experienced. The poor, by definition, don´t have many successes to show, so it is easy for financial institutions to rationalize their poorer customers´ predicament in terms of their principles, behaviors, attitudes and decision-making patterns. Imagine if banks could take to heart Pixar´s first rule of storytelling: “You admire a character [customers] for trying more than for their successes.”

For a financial institution, gaining respect for poorer customers often entails shedding prejudices which usually arise as extensions of one´s own attitudes and experiences. Front-line staff members need to acquire empathy for the customers they deal with. This means approaching their customers´ issues with an open mind, striving to grasp the broader context of customers´ work and life experiences, and always seeking to understand not only what their customers do but also why they make the decisions and choices that they do.

Product development teams need to build on what their customers are already thinking and doing, rather than setting out to radically change their mental models and behaviors around money management. Let customers decide what works best for them; the best a financial institution can do is to offer their customers better tools to achieve what they desire, in the way they are comfortable with.

Demonstrating respect for your customers is the starting point in the sense that it earns the provider the right to engage customers in conversation and to offer them tools and products they ought to consider. It´s hard for customers to be receptive to suggestions and offers if they fear they will be made to feel ill understood, adversely judged, or outright unwanted when engaging with providers.

Mutual benefit

Beyond respect, providers need to demonstrate that they are keen to build a mutually beneficial relationship with their customers. Relationships are meaningful when they feel like its a two-way street in terms of the nature of the conversation, the benefits that emanate from the relationship, and the responsibilities for maintaining it.

Customers need to have a voice in the conversation with their providers, otherwise they cannot have any expectation that the relationship is going to meet their needs and address their concerns over time. To that end, providers need to create mechanisms to solicit and capture customer feedback and, crucially, they need to build a track record of acting on it constructively. Providers need to avoid imposing their own language —everything from processes to product names to marketing catch-phrases— which all too often they expect customers to use whenever they transact.

Customers also need to be made to feel that the provider sees the relationship as a win-win, valuing them not only out of a sense of social concern but also as a matter of joint economic success. When Equity Bank rose, phoenix-like, from a in Kenya, arguably the strongest factor behind the huge brand affinity it managed to build was the sense that the success of each and every customer (which, significantly, they call members) was essential for the success of the bank. Customers who believe that their personal success is intimately linked with that of their banks are likely to be more trusting of the bank´s offers, as well as more lenient and understanding when something goes wrong.

Providers should not at all shy away from making asks of their customers, as long as those are properly explained and incorporate some customer input. Shared responsibilities increase the sense of commitment to the relationship. Sometimes providers seek to attract customers by lowering customer asks —through free trials with instant cancellation or a money-back guarantee— and those often result in very shallow customer relationships.

New opportunities

Building customer relationships on mutual benefit and shared responsibility is the best way of expressing a sense of journey to the customer. But the purpose of the journey must transcend a beautiful relationship. There must be concrete ways in which the relationship with a sympathetic provider helps customers dream of and achieve things they couldn´t do before. Ultimately, customers´ sense of empowerment will come because they are able to avail themselves of new opportunities, and to build connections with other people, entities or businesses that suit their purposes. The financial relationship ought to feel to customers like an opening up to a world beyond the one they have known and lived within.

This sense of opening up new opportunities ought to be embedded within financial institutions´ product range. By offering better money management tools, they should make households feel like they are more likely to achieve some future purchase goals that will make their lives more comfortable. By offering efficient digital payments, they should make businessmen feel that they can procure better products from a wider range of suppliers, and sell to customers that are further afield. By offering appropriate credit products, they should make entrepreneurs feel that they have more capacity to invest in and grow their businesses. By offering insurance products, they should make customers feel comfortable redirecting personal savings towards investment activities rather than seeing them as passive rainy-day funds.

Customers’ empowerment may be nurtured by the provider, but it must result in some outcomes that improve their situation for it to be sustained. This then creates a reinforcing feedback loop: This perception of improvement and growth increases providers´ respect for their customers, while boosting customers’ sense of mutual benefit.

Learning about our own attitudes toward money through money stories

posted Apr 6, 2016, 8:45 AM by Ignacio Mas

 [IBGC blog, Fletcher School, 5 April 2016, with Kim Wilson] 

Money is a complex human convention with deep cultural derivations and an elaborate social etiquette. It is part of the fabric of bonds within family and community. It is also mired in psychological biases and mental heuristics through which we personally come to terms with the barrage of decisions we need to make on a frequent basis.

Given this contextual cocktail, it is not surprising that behaviors around money often appear irrational on first analysis. However, there is always some hidden logic that explains, without necessarily justifying, most observed behaviors. (Critical distinction here: you can explain why a thief took something, but that doesn´t necessarily justify it.) These behavioral idiosyncrasies operate in the background and we easily identify them in others, but we rarely confront them in our own lives.

In our courses on digital money and financial inclusion, we find that getting students to think about their own idiosyncrasies around money is the best antidote against developing excessively judgmental attitudes in interpreting how others, and especially poor people, manage their money. In the Fletcher School´s Leadership Program for Financial Inclusion aimed at financial regulators and the DFI-Fletcher Certificate in Digital Money aimed at emerging market fintech professionals, we ask our students to tell us an interesting story from their own lives or those close to them that has to do with money, which made them look at money in a special or different light. We thought we’d show you the kind of stories that come up.

Ahmed Kamal of the Cairo Governorate in Egypt explains how his grandfather inculcated some lessons on the usage of money around saving, sharing, caring, and celebrating. It nicely sets up an apparent conflict when the grandchildren are first taught to save, then to give it away. The story speaks to the positive moral vlue we can give to money.

In his story, Joseph Maina, Managing Consultant at Jeypent Limited, tells us of a banana seller who refused to sell all her bananas to one customer. Sounds odd, until you reflect on it and see that one clearance sale would have disrupted her daily rhythm of business, it would have upset a host of regular customers who will be there long after the one windfall transaction is over, and it would have prevented her from interacting with people the rest of the day.

Many stories echo the same themes – grandparents passing along important traditions. Rats and termites eating cash. The crashing wave of fear that suppliers are predatory and that there is not much any of us can do about them. No one really trusting the digital system.

They are also about surprises: the rural grandparent of Mankolo Beyani of Zambia who stored beyond the urban grandchild’s imagination. They are about wisdom: the savings club in Fiorella Arubulu’s story, which more than once rescues families in Peru from being short on a school fee.

And finally, it’s about about an old adage: you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  This story by Rochelle Thomas of the Philippines sums up what all of us know –  you are damned if you save in a bank and damned if you don’t. Generations respond to the lessons of previous generations and come to alternating and opposite conclusions. In his story, Brendan Pierce, of the FinMark Trust of South Africa tells of the awkwardness of only having digital money when people around you are still expecting cash for things like tips.

Cash is “in.” Cash is “out.” Banks are “in.”  Banks are “out.”  What will be said of digital finance a generation from now: “in” or “out?”

Injecting meaning into digital customer experiences

posted Apr 4, 2016, 1:53 PM by Ignacio Mas

Injecting meaning into digital customer experiences

 [Center for Financial Inclusion blog, 4 April 2016] 

Digital has killed many products (think of the music CD, then the newspaper, and next, possibly, the book) but enables much broader, more flexible customer experiences (think iTunes, Google Alerts, the Kindle).

After reading just the first sentence of this post you may already be squirming: that marketing buzzword again, customer experience. Like all good terms, it is so often abused that it has come to represent an almost mystical quality that tautologically defines successful products and services: you can detect it but only in hindsight (think of the iPhone, Uber), and it´s oh so hard to put your finger on it during the development process. I think a large part of the failure of digital financial services to entice the poor, informal majority of people in the developing world beyond making/receiving the occasional remote payment and paying the odd bill has been a failure to recognize the difference between products and experiences.

Let me try to give meaning to the term customer experience with reference to the Kindle. In an old post I explained the three things I really like about the Kindle, and the Paperwhite 3G version in particular: (i) I can buy and download books wherever I am, whenever I am feeling bored; (ii) I can always read it wherever I am without needing any kind of supplementary reading aids (no need to wear reading glasses as I can increase —and standardize— the font size, no need to find light as I can illuminate the screen); and (iii) I can instantly look up the dictionary and other books referenced, thus preventing my inherent laziness getting in the way of learning about new words and works.

And yet there are certain important ways in which the Kindle presents a clearly degraded reading experience relative to the old fashioned book: (i) I cannot write things on the margin of the page, flexibly and visibly (notes must be in text form and hidden under a highlighted passage); (ii) the difficulty in browsing (the e-book is structured as the codex of former millennia, when you could only scroll through text sequentially); and (iii) how invisible the e-book (as opposed to the e-book reader) is when you are in fact not reading it, to the point that I often do not remember the author and title of the book I am currently reading.

Notice that my perceived disadvantages all have to do with the book as a distinct entity: writing on its pages, flipping its pages, casually gazing at the book cover. The superiority of traditional books is contained within the physical book itself. Any deficiencies in the environment are not held to be the book´s fault. How could one possibly judge the quality of a book by the amount of light in the room you happen to be in or the absence of a bookstore nearby?

In sharp contrast, the advantages of the Kindle all have to do with things that are extraneous to the book itself: a bookstore at your fingertips, no need to scramble for eye glasses or light, the incorporated dictionary and the seamless bundling and interconnecting of books. The Kindle does more for me than just convey the text in any given book.

So when staunch physical book readers tell us (usually rather self righteously) that they will never give up the touch and smell of books, they are talking about a particular experience – that of the book itself. They really are comparing the Kindle with one book. And when I counter with some pro-Kindle advocacy, I am talking about a much broader experience: it´s a book + bookstore + eyesight correction + lighting + dictionary combo. To me, a device that improves my experience on all these fronts is well worth sacrificing some browsing and margin-scribbling flexibility – important as these are.

In general, for physical goods the experience is limited by the product itself. One didn´t use to talk about experiences in the analog world where product = experience. But when that product is digitized, the opportunity is to create experiences that go well beyond the particular job that the analog product was designed for.

You can analyze what is so seductive about Uber in exactly the same way: it gives you more than just the ride from point a to point b (peace of mind around seamless booking, invisible payment, transparency of route taken, etc.).

But in the world of financial services, digital still tends to be seen as either an extension or a cheaper alternative of what financial institutions have always done. We are building digital products, not experiences.

If you design digital savings pots with the narrow idea of making them better than recycled jam jars, you are likely to fail. If you design digital merry-go-rounds with the narrow idea of making them better than the physical group meeting, you are likely to fail. If you design a merchant or bill payment system with the narrow idea of making that more convenient than pulling out a few bills from your pocket to pay for the school fee, you are (only slightly less) likely to fail.

You might have a much higher chance of succeeding if you broaden the definition of the problem that you are trying to solve. For instance: making sure that somehow you have enough money available to pay the school fees when they are due next month, by making it natural for you to be setting some money aside whenever you can, to borrow some money when you can´t get there all the way on your own, and to pay it conveniently once the money has been put together.

One job that financial services ought to do is to help people manage their money gaps – getting the money they don’t now have but which they know they´ll need at some point in the future. Digital ought to be well placed to support solutions that deal with that more holistically than your standard bank products.

Ultimately, the main challenge digital financial service providers face is to build customer propositions in a way that goes well beyond that savings account, that overdraft, and that life insurance policy. What aspects of people´s life are you aspiring to make easier or less anxiety ridden? Or, to use Clayton Christensen´s formulation, what is the real job you want them to hire you for?

Why digital wallets stay empty

posted Mar 7, 2016, 11:55 AM by Ignacio Mas

[From NextBillion blog, 7 March 2016, with I Ephraim and D Minha] 

Like their counterparts in countries across Africa and around the world, a large number of Tanzanians have flocked to emerging mobile payment solutions, whether it’s to send money home, facilitate informal business transactions, pay bills or buy pre-paid electricity. The reality, however – in both Tanzania and many other markets ­– is that most digital accounts are empty and serve mainly, if not exclusively, as a pass-through for such payments. This limits the transformational potential of mobile money.

In a recent Financial Sector Deepening Trust (FSDT) Focus Note, we point out several factors that make digital accounts an illogical store of value for people who live precariously on low and uncertain incomes, and face health or weather-related shocks which can easily overwhelm their means. From it we derive six ways in which providers can help make digital storage of value more attractive.


First, digital accounts need to deliver both fast and convenient payments (“flow”) as well as illiquidity features to support people’s mental hierarchies for different kinds of money, based on their origin or purpose (“friction”). How can one savings account or mobile wallet deliver both friction and flow? Features need to be introduced that give users more of a sense of control over when they need flow and when they want friction. Only then can digital accounts play a significant role in helping people manage their money tensions, which, unlike day-to-day payments, play out in time.


Second, providers need to stop thinking of savings products as devices to discipline poor people (I won´t let you touch your money!), and instead focus on tools that help people discipline themselves (I can´t justify to myself touching my money now). Poor people will reject savings products if they feel that they carry or invite implicit judgments by the bank. Dedicated school fees accounts, for instance, do not work partly because if you have had a rough month and haven´t been able to contribute to your children´s school fees account, the last thing you want is for the bank to think that you are a bad mother.


Third, providers need to talk of their savings services in a way that makes it seem more relevant to poor people. For poor people, saving is what you do when you have extra money – except that never seems to happen to them. Their problem is not that they have too much money, but rather that they have too many payments they need to make and too many things they want to buy, today and in the future. So saving products should be pitched as a payment solution – to build up to and protect tomorrow´s payments. Money management is all about not letting today´s payments unduly undermine tomorrow´s payments.

Also, many poor people view savings not as money that is not yet spent, but rather as money that is not yet spoken for. Most people who save money for school fees in a jar would not think of that money as savings. Rather, they would think of savings as money that does not yet have a clear purpose, and as such is vulnerable money – money that is begging to be used. Savings are hard to hang on to; but stick it into the school fees jar (ie: give it a story) or buy a chicken with it (ie: think of it as an investment) and now it´s a lot easier to hang onto. Insisting that people should “save” undermines their instinctive financial logic.


Fourth, poor people can´t afford to have dedicated pots of money for single purposes, the way richer people do. Money always must do double, if not triple, duty. A key reason why informal savings mechanisms like savings groups, money guards and livestock are so entrenched is precisely because you might think of each as savings for a purpose (that motorcycle I want to buy), but also as insurance (a fund I can raid if I need to take my daughter to the hospital), as well as a tool to build up your future credit potential (accumulating social capital by displaying my success and financial capacity). Bank savings products need to incorporate this multiplicity and fuzziness of purpose – that´s what lets people feel like their money is working for them.


Fifth, to the extent that discipline needs to be supported by illiquidity features, these should be highly intuitive to people and not be driven by what customers perceive as arbitrary impositions and small print. Nobody blames the cow for being indivisible, but most would blame the bank if they are not able to make a small withdrawal from a large savings account they hold. Any illiquidity features embedded in an account need to be readily obvious in the name and visual representation of the account on the phone menu.


Sixth, in countries where there is little or no interoperability across digital financial service providers, digital money appears to people as a confusing mess of monetary islands – each with its own rules and menu structure, maybe requiring a specific mobile operator connection. This is in stark contrast to cash, which appears to them as a consistent monetary universe. They may learn to use specific digital monetary islands to make specific remote payments (ie: this island to send money to my mother in the village, that other island to pay a bill). But what they will not want to do is to leave money stranded in these diverse monetary islands. They´ll always return to cash, the universal solution. Without interoperability, what we call digital money will never feel like digital cash to them. It is just too hard to figure out.

The common denominator across all these factors is that digital accounts will not be useful money management and savings tools unless they give users a greater sense of control over their money. The feeling of control doesn´t come from agreeing to certain conditions that the bank has imposed on your account; it comes from being able to take the action that you feel is right. Action is what creates a sense of control. Yet if you get money on your mobile wallet today, the only action you can take today to feel in control of your money is to cash it out. For people to store value in their accounts, there needs to be a far richer set of digital actions that they can take with their money the moment they receive it.

On the twelfth day of financial inclusion

posted Dec 23, 2015, 7:06 AM by Ignacio Mas

 [From CFI blog, 23 December 2015] 

Here are my best wishes for the CFI community, to be sung to the tune of the last bit of the twelve days of Christmas:

On the twelfth day of financial inclusion my true donor sent to me:
Twelve human centered designers
Eleven ground truths validated
Ten agent trainings
Nine peer networks learning
Eight logs a-framing
Seven innovation challenges
Six rapid prototypes
Five fast failings
Four big data thingies
Three evidence bases
Two RCTs evaluating
And an e-money issuer license.

The course we wish we had taken years ago

posted Dec 3, 2015, 11:38 AM by Ignacio Mas

 [From the Institute for Business in a Global Context at the Fletcher School, 3 December 2015, with Kim Wilson] 

Most of us in the digital financial services space have had to learn about digital payments and digital financial services on the job. While there are business school courses in banking and supermarket distribution networks, they don’t prepare you for a career in building the basic 21st century infrastructure of Digital Money. Digital money is our term for any transaction that securely enables the sending, receiving, storing, or tracing of money on digital networks.

As a result, the increasing number of companies building out teams in the emerging Digital Financial Services space face severe capacity bottlenecks, especially in developing countries. Their employees may come to develop deep operational expertise in the specific aspect of the industry they are involved in, but often lack a broader perspective of industry trends and issues, and remain unaware of alternative models that exist elsewhere.

In order to address this, the Digital Frontiers Institute (DFI), which was recently co-founded by David Porteous, Gavin Krugel and Ignacio Mas, is partnering with the Fletcher School to create the first university-certified course in Digital Money. This is an intensive, 12-week online course, and it will be offered for the first time this February, in English (see the course brochure).

The course is a foundational one, exposing students to the full lay of the land around digital payment ecosystems. It´s more about the forest than the trees; we focus on the big picture and integrate the component parts (banks, utilities, governments, third party providers) into an understandable whole.

We have designed a student journey that uses online to technology to move beyond a classic classroom experience. Students will not experience the course as a list of steps they need to take – videos they need to watch or assessments they need to complete. Rather, the whole course will be structured as an online discussion, which faculty stimulate by injecting teaching materials, cases, and open questions. Students can earn points towards their certificate requirement in a variety of different ways, so they can concentrate on those that best suit their interests and work commitments.

The course takes advantage of the broad range of Fletcher faculty interests and experiences in the form of a weekly “food for thought case,” which relates digital money to a variety of real-world issues, such as digital marketing, business digitization, migration, and ultra-fragile identities.

The global experience with online learning points to the benefits of blending online pedagogical resources with facilitated face-to-face classroom discussions. We will invite local organizations anywhere to work with us to create a blended offering for local targeted communities of professionals and students who enroll in the Digital Money course. By joining our Communities of Practice program, partner organizations can, if they so choose, create their own additional programing to be used in conjunction with the DFI-Fletcher Certificate in Digital Money curriculum. They can use this to develop closer relationships with industry participants, and perhaps also further their own capability assembling objectives and programs, building on top of the basic course curriculum.

For the DFI, this course represents a first step in its objective of creating an ongoing professional development network around digital payments. For Fletcher, it represents a deepening involvement in the inclusive digital finance space, along with its Leadership Program for Financial Inclusion (FLPFI), Cost of Cash studies, and other research programs.

Announcing the first online course in Digital Money, by the Digital Frontiers Institute

posted Oct 30, 2015, 7:12 AM by Ignacio Mas

David Porteous, Gavin Krugel and I have teemed up to build capability in digital financial services and payments. We have now officially launched the Digital Frontiers Institute (DFI), as a non-profit.

Ultimately, our aim is to create:

  • For individuals with an interest in digital payments: an ongoing professional development journey, starting with initial training and certification;
  • For businesses operating in the space: options to offer professional growth paths to their employees, in order to ensure a shared knowledge base as well as reward more promising employees with expanded career options; and 
  • For development organizations and NGOs: a mechanism to create shared learning experiences involving key partners in the digital payments ecosystem.

Our first offering will be a 12-week online course in Digital Money, co-certified by our partner university, the Fletcher School. It will be offered for the first time next February, in English. This brochure describes the course in detail.

We are now accepting applications from individual students and organizations that want to sponsor a set of students. We have some scholarship funding which students can apply for as well. 


We are also seeking partners who can help us ‘blend’ the course, by hosting weekly physical discussion forums for local students in their offices, and possibly adding content of their own to the basic structure of the DFI Certificate course. These partners might be financial institutions and payments-related companies wanting to create an in-house training facility; consultants and industry vendors wanting to develop an ecosystem of like-minded customers and partners; business schools wanting to create their own digital money offering; NGOs; etc.

Making digital money more relevant

posted Oct 28, 2015, 5:31 AM by Ignacio Mas

See the three-part blog post, co-written with colleagues from MicroSave and Eko, in MicroSave´s blog: here, here and here.

Different worlds: why digital payments should not be regulated as an offshoot of banking

posted Sep 9, 2015, 1:53 PM by Ignacio Mas

 [From NextBillion blog, 9 September 2015, with Ross Buckley] 

The essence of banking is taking calculated risks, and banks’ profitability comes from taking such risks. That is not to say that bankers are inherently risk loving; they often display a strong conservative bias, which is a natural form of self-protection against excessive risk-taking. Calculating risks appropriately requires getting as much information as possible on the underlying sources of risk. Bankers therefore seek to establish ongoing relationships with their customers as a path to capture further information. 

On the other hand, the essence of payments is offering transactional services with the minimum amount of risk. Profitability comes from customer service and convenience, not taking risks on behalf of customers. So payment systems are designed to offer customers maximum functionality, speed and convenience, at adequate levels of security and certainty for all parties. Modern payment systems seek to minimize risk by conducting transactions on a funded basis and by operating as close as possible to real time. Technology, rather than relationships, lies at the heart of transaction speed and certainty.

In a new paper, we analyze the ways in which digital payments are emerging as a specific field of expertise, and how and why it differs from banking. The principal differences between the two fields are that banks prosper greatly from managing risk and little from network effects, whereas payments providers typically seek to avoid risk and prosper greatly from network effects.  This leads to fundamentally different outlooks between the practitioners in each field.

For payments providers, being able to handle transactions on a funded basis and in real time is enormously liberating because it enables transactions with less well-known parties. It makes it possible to opt for mass-marketing channels, without having to worry as much about screening customers. It also makes it possible to engage indirect service channels; for instance, offering cash in/cash out through a network of thousands of retail outlets. This is not to say digital payments do not carry risks, but the aspiration is always to limit them.

In payments, the quality or depth of individual customer relationships matters less than their number and breadth. This is because payments can only be understood in the context of a network, and the size and breadth of the user base are defining characteristics of the network itself. Payment systems are subject to strong network effects (the more users on it, the more valuable the service is to any given user) and operate in a multitude of two-sided markets (there needs to be buyers and merchants, bill payers and billing companies, wage earners and employers).

That´s not necessarily the case with banking: There may be scale effects because serving more customers is cheaper than serving few, but one customer doesn´t directly benefit from there being a large number of other bank customers. Banking is fundamentally about the functioning of institutions (how they manage risks and build enduring customer relationships), whereas payments is more about the functioning of ecosystems (who is in it and how big it is).

As payments become more deeply researched and its practitioners more specifically educated in it, these differences in economic drivers of banking versus payments ought to create a differential regulatory treatment. Traditional banking regulation seeks to limit the risks banks assume, because when banks fail the money they lose belongs to ordinary people, who vote, and the broader economic consequences of bank failure can be severe. For both these reasons, politicians feel the need to bail out failing banks. Payments are traditionally regulated as part of banking regulation, and often by the same regulatory institutions, but the imperatives that drive banking regulation should not drive payments regulation. A failure of a payments provider should not necessitate a bailout with public funds. While it may prove highly inconvenient to many people, it is difficult to imagine the failure of a payments provider causing financial market contagion, as did the collapse of Lehmann Brothers, for instance.  

Payments are their own industry and they deserve their own regulatory regime, finely attuned to the relatively minor risks that payments generate. Changes in banking in the past 20 years have been substantial, but the greatest changes and opportunities in the next 20 years are likely to arise in payments.

New tools to accommodate old financial habits: Key for DFS usage

posted Jul 21, 2015, 9:51 AM by Ignacio Mas

 [From CGAP blog, 21 July 2015] 

When it comes to understanding the needs and behaviors of low-income people, the financial inclusion literature is full of contradictions. Experts celebrate poor people for their complex, active financial lives, but then seek to educate them financially. Researchers document how resilient and purposeful their informal practices are, but then investigate ways to protect them against their own financial habits. Giving the poor a wide range of financial choices is an admirable goal, but do we really need to “nudge” them to change behaviors, as if the choice had already been made for them?

Education is often identified as a barrier preventing customers from using digital financial products. In reality, however, teaching someone to use money in a new way - digitally - by starting with education may be the toughest path. Change only comes with practice, and people will see little reason to change without a compelling reason. It may be easier to inspire the use of digital financial services if we flip the script around.

  1. Understand Current Behavior. The first step in the journey to greater use of digital financial services is to understand what it is that people do today, specifically how they make decisions on their money matters. In the paper Money Resolutions, A Sketchbook, I characterize six common financial decision-making practices that poor people often employ. These are expressed creatively in this short animated video. People living on precarious, unpredictable incomes cannot afford to live by hard- and-fast rules. Instead they must make money decisions in the moment, every time they touch money, because there is new information that gets revealed with every dollar they make and with every unforeseen expenditure. They must organize their financial life as it unfolds, not through infrequent, idealistic budgeting moments. These six practices allow them to put their financial decision-making on some kind of auto-pilot, creating anxiety-reducing habits that work for them most of the time.

  2. Use New Tools in Old Ways. Once there is an understanding of people’s habits and behaviors, new digital tools can allow them to replicate these behaviors through a new medium. The key here is to enable customers to preserve their current mindset and behaviors instead of forcing them to change just to fit the digital tools. In this stage, the value of digital financial services comes from letting people do what they have always done, just with a greater sense of control, convenience, reliability, security and perhaps privacy. Two of the six practices discussed in Money Resolutions, A Sketchbook – animating money and liquidity farming – are especially well-suited for digital replication because they can be brought to life through gamification and leveraging social networks. Asking people to adopt a new tool for dealing with money, while simultaneously requiring that they learn new habits and approaches, is simply too overwhelming and is likely to result in low levels of usage.

  3. Use New Tools in New Ways. Once people are comfortable replicating their old habits with new tools, they are likely to begin using these tools in new ways, although this is usually a slow process. The sheer availability of better tools can, over time, shift how people interpret their problems and the choices they consider. Just think about how you first used the Internet when it was introduced: most likely you used it to do things you otherwise have done some other way, such as conduct research or send messages to friends. It was only later that you explored the uses specific to that medium – like blogging, tweeting, or building a website. The same goes for digital financial services. At first, customers may simply use them to send money to friends or family. But with time, as they become more comfortable with digital money, more advanced opportunities, such as using digital credit or using digitally-powered pay-as-you-go utilities, become accessible.
Most digital financial services that are offered today on mobile or branchless banking channels are in fact legacies of the non-digital age; they treat the digital platform merely as a channel. But digital delivery can fundamentally alter the nature of the services that are offered on them, especially in regards to how customers perceive and use them. This is not necessarily a call to make financial services more sophisticated. On the contrary: digital services are able to replicate what people already do informally, in everyday life, much more closely than standard bank products delivered over brick-and-mortar channels can ever achieve.

1-10 of 139