Case Story 

gamified mobile app

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iphone mockup
A list of numbers from one to five


This is a case story about designing and building an educational financial literacy mobile app. Our client, Susan, was CEO and founder of a corporate educational firm. During this five-week project, my role was to:

1. lead preliminary research
2. select evidence-based design approach
3. co-create prototype
4. write all UX and brand copy

After our group delivered the final product, Susan hired me on to her development team as Lead UX Writer & Researcher to continue testing and building this wonderful game.

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Years ago, Susan had a dream about a money conservation game. A teacher to the core, she knew she had to share this idea with her students. She leapt out of bed, grabbed her laptop, and recorded the game mechanics in an Excel spreadsheet.

But from there, she was stumped. She wanted to transform this Excel document into a fun game that her students and clients could use and enjoy. She wanted the numbers to be more than just numbers on the page. As a writer, researcher, and designer, I empathize with her struggles as a creator. I also empathize with users who struggle to learn finance. (It's hard!)

Susan teaching her students

Susan helping students boost their financial literacy.

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Our team knew we had to turn Susan's game into a tangible product that users would love, and we were ready for the challenge. Our first step was to conduct thorough market research about gaming and financial literacy.

As a book nerd with a background in psychology and anthropology, I love gathering and analyzing data. We built out a competitive analysis. We interviewed several specialists in the finance and gaming industries. We sent out surveys, and we gathered as much data as possible. Then I crunched our data with an Affinity Map — my favorite UX research tool.

Click the sticky notes to view my diagram:

View Research Files
Sticky notes with writing

we discovered...

that our target audience should be young adults. They scored highest in three important category metrics:

A.) high need for improved financial literacy
B.) low experience with money
C.) strong likelihood of using mobile devices for gaming

We were confident we could bridge our users' needs with Susan's dream product.

Synthesis Docs
View Research Files

and we learned...

People avoid money. Even though they desire to be smart with it.

Some believe they are too busy to learn money management, or too stressed, too old, too young, not "mathy" enough. For many, money is challenging and boring. Money is a problem they feel unable to solve.

A scanned image of a brain

bad thoughts about money...

Man covered in sticky notes

...cause bad feelings about money...

Twenty dollar bills inside a toilet

...leading to bad money decisions..

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But why? Here's how it all goes down inside the brain. Money is a highly stigmatized subject. People are taught to seek it, but not too much. Desire it, but don't be greedy. Require it, but don't depend on it for everything. Money is the "best motivator" but also the "root of all evil." Our society sends many mixed signals about money. This causes widespread confusion and frequently results in negative thoughts about money.

These thoughts become powerful stories that the brain sends from the prefrontal cortex all the way down to the highly reactive amygdala. It doesn't matter if the stories are true or not. (The amygdala isn't a fact checker.) It PANICS, then floods the body with fear, guilt, and emotional overwhelm. And so these negative thoughts that became negative stories have now become negative feelings all because of a perceived threat.

People react to threat in one of three ways: by fighting, fleeing, or freezing.

No wonder we avoid the topic of money!

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Our team wanted to disrupt the cycle of bad money thoughts. We needed to transform money from threat into...something fun.

We would design an entertaining mobile game that:

  1. provides a fun theme and objective and doesn't trigger thoughts of money at all
  2. removes key blockers such as jargon, numbers, and stressful "corporate vibes"
Through nurturing design, we would help our users grow their financial literacy.
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We branched out and chose an eco-friendly and gender-neutral design theme: trees!

Its plot and objective are simple for users to grasp: build a tree farm. In place of scary stories about debt and stocks and ROI, our users play a charming farming game. They make risk-free decisions in a safe space and discover ways to grow their walnut, birch, and maple inventories.

Best of all, our game teaches complex finance strategy without using complex finance terms.
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When we tested our product on real-life users, we received more great feedback. I designed a usability test script that assessed the most basic features: 

What aspects of the game are easy, fun, and helpful?
Which aspects of the game are frustrating, boring, or impractical?
Do users want to play this game again? Why or why not?

As my teammates tested users, I conducted A/B testing to discover layout preferences. Based on our findings, we made some changes to the low fidelity prototype. Then we took it to high fidelity.

bridging design

FEEDBACK: Too much jargon.

The original game language was clear, but also technical and advanced.
I wrote age-appropriate copy that honored the game mechanics AND made our young users chuckle.

Two mobile prototype screens

FEEDBACK: Too much reading.

We emphasized visuals by replacing words and numbers with icons.

Two mobile prototype screens

FEEDBACK: Too "busy."

We reduced information on each screen and relocated data to more intuitive locations such as:
the bottom navigation panel or in user settings.

Each screen is now easy to navigate.

Two mobile prototype screens
Executive Summary

we also...

A person's hand holding a mobile phone

cleaned up

Removing blockers was our top priority, so we went full Marie Kondo on our app. We removed any icons, text, or design that risked cluttering the aesthetic.

A sign with a male and female symbol

closed the gender gap

Women were also a top target market, so we incorporated gender-neutral themes, light colors, and welcoming copy. We wanted our product to feel inclusive, especially for groups underrepresented in finance.

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created more tools

When users discover they can teach themselves, they want more learning tools. We built a "study guide" feature so users can track progress, review concepts, and share tips.

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  final outcomes

While our team created a great user-centered product, the final draft would certainly have benefitted from more usability tests that incorporated our last-minute feature changes. Impression testing and additional user interviews may also have helped us home in on user frustrations to really target those those extra painful points.

But the project wasn't over for me yet! Susan offered me a position on her product team as Lead UX Writer & Researcher.

On this specialized team, I created new marketing copy, built novel game scenarios, and drafted pitch decks and executive summaries to obtain investor funding.

Slowly but surely, Susan's incredible dream game is coming to life!

Our Kickstarter
Eight screens in a mobile prototype