One of my favorite activities is to scout for and look at new offerings in investing, money management and advice to see how I feel as a user. It’s a particularly rewarding exercise to try to back into what it would look like in an idealized state for me personally to engage enthusiastically with it.

Why enthusiastically?  Isn’t it enough to just engage?

The enthusiasm is key because I have seen repeatedly from research and from experience that women find dealing with money fraught with fear, anxiety, stress and tedium. So if an offering has to have any chance of success, it has to cross a higher initial bar than it does for men.

The most important criterion for that it has to somehow overcome the “boring, stressful and incomprehensible” trifecta of presumption on the part of women on anything to do with money. One of the most effective ways to do this is to engage positive emotion immediately on contact and keep it well-stocked throughout the course of a promising journey, a path – in other words, by making them enthusiastic to engage on a meaningful journey that they expect to be rewarding.

How can an offering achieve this goal?

In an earlier post, I talked about what the financial services industry can learn from gaming. In this post, let’s pick up on that analogy and see what specific lessons the gaming business has to offer in terms of structuring the journey.

Think about the first time you see a new game: you are not quite sure what it is, what it will do for you, and whether it is worth the costs to you to invest in finding out: these costs may be small for something like a video game, but they are nonetheless real and will certainly factor into your decision to play or not to play.  At this point, you’ll base your go/no-go decision on some gut-level calculus of cost/benefit: how much time and effort do I think I’ll spend and will the rewards be worth it.

Making the discovery process engaging

You will proceed only if your initial and cursory investigation gives you a favorable impression in terms of the “currencies” that matter to you: time spent playing and learning the rules versus whatever emotional rewards you seek.

At this point it’s all about establishing minimum viability to explore. In gaming terms, this is called the discovery phase. If this calculation isn’t favorable, you simply won’t move forward, no matter how attractive the promises of future rewards.

The exact same calculus happens when a woman is evaluating a money offering too. The only difference is in the currencies: her costs are potential risk (assessed by the trustworthiness of the provider), time and effort spent getting up to speed. These costs are always typically much different than they are for men, because of the severe time, mind-share and self-confidence constraints that seem to be uniquely female. The rewards are much murkier, but more on that in a minute.

Keeping the on-boarding process light

Now think about a different situation where you have just learned to play the game, and you are now starting to discover what all the different features, icons and figures mean. You are also experimenting with how you engage with the game and its environment, still not completely convinced that it’s going to be a long-term relationship. At this point, your focus is likely to be on learning enough to survive the early days and figuring out how to nail your first few victories so you can validate that you are indeed going to be getting the rewards you wanted.

The key in this phase is to offer solid, repeated and reliable proof that engagement was worth the effort for the user, and to show that there is the prospect of further gains and rewards if they continue to stay the course. In other words, this phase is all about validating their engagement and offering proof and promise of rewards. In gaming, this is the on-boarding phase.

In money terms, the on-boarding phase will be successful only if the effort involved in getting aboard – typically in the form of data to be gathered, and assessments and decisions to be made, all of which impose significant cognitive load, come with immediate wins that validate the reason why she elected to engage in the first phase. If the tangible rewards are weak, or efforts too onerous, it’s easier for her to sink back to status quo.

Settling for the long-haul

In the third phase, you are now  very comfortable with the rules of the game and there’s enough to keep bringing you back regularly. But how does the game make sure you don’t get bored: briefly, by increasing the challenge level to a place that’s just outside your reach but you think is achievable.

The game keeps you motivated with clear, immediate and unambiguous feedback so you can instantly keep improving your skill and ability to execute, all of which reliably trigger the pleasure and reward centers in your brain. This is the engagement phase in gaming. Users may stay here for a long time, depending on the the time they have to devote to this activity.

For a woman to continue to engage, the traditional model of quarterly or other touch-bases may or may not be adequate. The key here is to infuse activities, rewards and processes that introduce emotional engagement, tangible progress tied to actions, and self-reinforcing loops. The traditional model of money management, for example, does not operate this way, but it may be well worth the while to take a fresh look.

The end-game

Let’s now move on to the last phase: when you are a master at the game, you are now one of the elite players that can help or advise novice players get better, you have truly reached the endgame phase. Since you are so good, a big way to keep you engaged at this point is to transform the nature of rewards you’re getting from mere individual achievement into one based on social rewards: in other words, design opportunities for you to demonstrate mastery to your community and to give back to them.

Women are inherently more social than men, although flavors and extent vary (I am notoriously introverted, for example). So there is a good case to be made that providing opportunities to give back to their friends will strike a chord among them.

Etienne Boulanger

The money management journey: starting trouble

This exact framework with the four journey stages of discovery, on-boarding, engagement and the end-game will have even higher payoffs when dealing with women as customers because it shines a very bright light on the key barriers that are preventing them from even entering the game today – i.e. the significant problems in the discovery phase.

In the discovery phase lie the biggest rewards to be reaped with good design. More importantly, nothing in terms of the offering itself will matter if women are put off from engaging in the discovery phase: so getting this right is absolutely crucial.

What women need in this phase is a winning equation that tilts them in favor of exploring the solution versus doing nothing. This is the single most critical stage where the prospective user is looking at the offering and evaluating the costs to her (probably over-weighted in terms of anxiety, stress, trustworthiness), versus what she gets from engaging with the solution.

The key at this stage is to emphasize credibility, feasibility, control and reward. And because the pull of inertia is so extremely high and its call so seductive, the discovery phase has to carry the extra load of overcoming these by supplying significant positive emotion.

A simple example I see done very well in gaming and retail, but not in the current standard money offering is the prospect of control and choice of the key parts of the journey in the discovery stage. Rather than just laying a standard path, it would provide a lot more assurance to a prospective user of what the possible “routes” may be to her goal, possibly in terms of themes like the quick and efficient route, vs. the scenic route. Giving the user both the choice as well as a taste of the journey prospectively, especially in terms of the emotional rewards it can give her, can be a very powerful lever to help her take the step towards the next stage: on-boarding.

The solutions today have pretty much a straight-lined path where the user does x,y,z actions in a linear manner. In addition, they also don’t lay out what this means in terms that are meaningful to the user, so she doesn’t have the means to evaluate the pros and cons of moving forward, as well as of each path, in any kind of meaningful way.

The current “just three simple steps” approach aspires to make the process “easy” to the user, but it may backfire, especially when the user is no way convinced that she should even buy any product, leave alone buy this product.

Andersen Jensen

Speaking from my own test-run with several of these offerings, I find the discovery phase a little off-putting. If I am someone who is already not comfortable dealing with money, I need to be provided assurance that I can take this at my own pace especially if I consider myself “ignorant” in matters of finance, and not just be handed a black-box process that I don’t understand and am afraid to ask about. This is so even if the product is designed by several dozen Ph.D.s who are individually orders of magnitude smarter than I am.

The offering needs to provide credible evidence that it works even for someone like me, and will not only address those concerns by helping me get smart, for example, but also show that it will be a fun experience for me.

Additionally, especially if I dread dealing with money, as many women do, I would jump at the chance to have some fun while doing it, and I am sure many others would too.

Last but probably most critical, explicitly incorporating more leverage not only as an immediate reward, but also as a reduction in current costs is likely to have a disproportionately positive impact on women.

In contrast, not only do current offerings not show me how it can give me some fun, but they also do not address my biggest fears (lack of knowledge and how that helps with that, and any support for when things go bad)

All the rewards they provide are far in the future, in the form of goals achieved, while all that is in the picture in the short term presumably are sacrifice and pain, not to mention adding to her already long to-do list. We know from behavioral science that long-term rewards have very limited power in influencing action. I want my rewards here and now I want multiple ways I could win these rewards (for example, feeling of confidence, promise of competence to address my lack of knowledge).

Designing the discovery phase with an explicit focus on addressing the known barriers, providing immediate rewards (especially if in the form of providing time leverage to overburdened women), providing choice and control in forward progress, and making the participation in the process itself fun (regardless of the long-term outcome) are powerful and as yet untapped ways to attract more women into exploring more active management of their money in the discovery phase.

The payoffs (pun intended) of implementing this approach beyond discovery and into on-boarding and engagement are even more numerous. And there is a completely untapped opportunity industry-wide to help users enter the end-game by, for example, giving them opportunities to give back lessons learned or experience gained to more junior travelers (not financial advice) in a more structured and impactful way.

Using the lens of the journey to understand and then to design what women look for and respond to in each stage of this long journey will help providers better leverage the assets and strengths they already possess in significant measure: all that’s needed is their deployment using a more thoughtful, surgical and precise approach.


Actionable gamification – Beyond points, badges and leaderboards, Yukai-Chou, 201