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Mobiles: a mass-customizable financial tool?

posted Aug 22, 2012, 2:25 AM by Ignacio Mas

 [From CGAP Technology blog, 22 August 2012 (with Jonathan Petrides)] 

Do you really believe that simply providing cheap and efficient access will make poor, self- or informally employed people flock to banks? Can you honestly hope for a shortlist of silver bullet financial products that, once discovered, can unleash demand for formal financial services amongst hundreds of millions who presently don’t get how banks can help them?

We are not feeling very confident on either of these assertions – but there may be an exciting way forward. Our best hope is to develop a mass customization framework that allows users not only to choose but to construct their own bouquet of services based on their specific circumstances and needs. There is no easy answer to the relevance question, so put customers in the driving seat and let them lead you to whatever they find useful. As Amazon’s huge success in tackling the fat tail of the demand curve showed: manage diversity instead of delivering to some arbitrarily synthesized mean, and you may give each customer what she wants.

Diversity and customization can be devastating to any but the most efficient brick-and-mortar businesses. But digital technology opens up new possibilities, as services become mere parameters in a flexible service platform. What is common between the successes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple is: (i) the design of clean and intuitive user interfaces, (ii) linked to powerful customer data management systems conceived as learning engines, and (iii) offering easy access to an ever-increasing range of customer-tailored functionalities and services. They have demonstrated that, if done right, the recipe can scale seemingly infinitely. But how can these principles be applied to low-cost, mass-market banking?

The current focus of innovation in financial inclusion remains on channels and products. These are necessary, but are no more than underutilized building blocks for now. What’s currently lacking is an understanding of how target customers will naturally adopt, interact with and experience a toolkit to manage what small cashflows they battle daily to balance, stretch and stow away.

The principal challenge in conceiving these expanded, flexible customer experiences is in developing an intuitive, easy-to-access, immediately available (so likely mobile) -user interface that presents a variety of product functionalities in a coherent, integrated fashion. The user experience cannot feel like a stapling of products or menus. A good user interface lets customers discover and try out new services with relatively little prodding or guidance, it prompts customers to reveal more about themselves to the provider, it induces customer loyalty through sheer familiarity, it offers a diversity of branding and cross-selling opportunities.

A financial service for the base of the pyramid must, at its core, help people with their financial planning. This notion can help articulate the logic of user interface design (see here for an example of how this can be done). A provider that helps people plan better will be in a better position to promote its own financial products. By putting financial planning at the center of the provider-client relationship, clients’ financial education grows with usage, which in turn opens up new possibilities for client development.

Getting to the position where we can design integrated customer experiences requires that we learn about customers at many levels: conceptual financial management metaphors, functional needs and habits, user interface interactivity, messaging effectiveness, etc. A traditional big corporate phased product pilot is not the vehicle to unearth these understandings, instead we’ll need to get creative and deploy rapid, immersive hack-experiments to iteratively hunt through the vagaries of customer’s feelings, thinking, preferences, habits and unearth a familiar mass-customizable user-interface.