Changing the design brief for the better- personal finances


Understand the ways in which people on a low income manage their money, with a view to developing a budgeting app


Budgeting apps such as Mint and TrackMySpend were starting to really take off around 2013. At this time I was involved in a project with an aim (among others) to better understand how people on a low income manage their finances and how technology can be designed to adapt to people's budgeting practices, rather than simply designing another generic budgeting app. While the brief was more broadly concerned with understanding practices, there was an assumption that this support would entail some form of better-tailored budgeting app.

I had established a connected with a local NGO which offers a range of support services for a diverse range of people in financial distress, those escaping hardship or reintegrating with the community. After a number of visits to the NGO during their twice-weekly food relief sessions, chatting to clients over the morning tea provided and conducting some information interviews, we elected to run a focus group. This method offered a means of eliciting and sharing the range of ideas and positions we had gathered from people informally on how they got by and lived well on low income.


We organised a focus group at the NGO to be held directly after one of their food relief sessions. The theme of the workshop was "Getting by and living well on less". The intention was to focus on the innovative and novel ways in which people get by and thrive on a low income, rather than dwell on problems. The workshop was attended by 18 users of the NGO and a resident social worker.

A difficulty of focus groups is the possibility for an outspoken few to dominate over quieter less assertive participants. For this reason we started off with an anonymous activity where everyone had to write individual post-it notes for a number of categories such as: "On your present income- how do you eat healthy / have fun / stay fit?"... "what barriers stop you doing any of the above?" The facilitator read out each of these and directed a discussion around them. In this way equal attention was paid to all responses and everyone (though anonymous) had their voices heard.

After a group activity and a discussion around some of our pre-prepared paper prototypes (described in full here), the key session of the workshop was for the participants to ideate new assistive technologies to assist them in addressing the problems they faced in getting by on less, with an emphasis on financial management.


A key outcome of the workshop was learning that last thing that our participants needed was a budgeting app. Our participants were mostly adept at managing their finances and employed various and creative means of making small amounts of money stretch impressively far. None of the participants felt they needed help budgeting. For many budgeting was easy, given the small amount of weekly income to manage. Of far more use was knowledge and access to services to help them stretch this money further- e.g. free food services, good opportunity shops, tool-shares, and assistance with government forms and bureaucracy. The workshop turned out to be equally as helpful for our participants, sharing information and opinions on these types of services, as it had been helpful for us in better understanding the problem space.


This case study highlights the necessity of user-centred design, i.e. starting with the user and working backwards to the technology. If we had followed through with our design brief and started by designing a budgeting app, we would have wasted a huge amount of time and effort creating something ultimately redundant for our specific user group. Instead by following a careful user-centred methodology emphasising problem definition (rather than assuming the problem and jumping straight into designing a solution), we saved the client (in this case the research grant), a great deal of money. I left to begin work in England prior to the conclusion of this project, however prior to my departure, the focus of the design brief had changed substantially towards designing technology to help those in need connect with the widest possible range of services, assistance and support, providing technological solutions with impact far beyond the original brief of personal finance.

Note: This blog describes only a small part of this large and relatively complex research. A much fuller picture of the issues encountered and methods used are presented in these peer reviewed academic papers:

Snow, S., Vyas, D., Lyle, P., Mallett, M., Brereton, M. (2016) Building connections: Technology design for living on a low income. Participatory Design Conference 2016, Aarhus, Denmark

Snow, S., Vyas, D., & Brereton, M. (2017). Sharing, saving, living well on less: Redefining the “low income” tag. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 33(5), 345-356.

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