Finding the Romance of Financial Empathy

How an Unexpected Research Insight Turned into a Dating Game

As a Researcher at Capital One I spend most of my time diving into things like the investing and budgeting habits of Millennials. Imagine my surprise when, one day, the entire purpose of a research study on savings and an entire team’s product strategy was flipped upside down by an insight about relationships. It was an insight that—beyond my work—changed my own romantic life.

This is the story of that insight.

How Office Gossip Turned into a Product Insight

“Annalise has a boyfriend,” I declared to my colleagues as I walked into work one morning. Product managers, designers, and engineers crowded around my monitor, looking for more details about Annalise’s beau.

But we weren’t looking at Instagram or Facebook; we were looking at video clips from a diary study where we had asked our customers to show us how they were spending their “fun money” for the week. Annalise was not one of our colleagues, but our persona—the imaginary stand-in we used to represent the biggest group of people who used our budgeting and savings tool, Level Money.

Why were a bunch of grown-ups so excited about the romantic life of of a design tool? These professionals spent most of their time coding, making sure Stripe integrations were in order, and all the other nuts and bolts of inspiring Millennials to build emergency funds. “Annelise’s” dating life had absolutely nothing directly to do with anything on anybody’s roadmap or “to-do” list for the day.

What did happen, is that it sparked the team’s natural emotional empathy, or what happens when you “feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.”*

On this team of nearly seventy designers, product managers, and engineers, almost everyone was married, in a long-term relationship, or swiping away on Tinder. As we bounced our experiences off those of the people we saw in the study, we could begin to see the nuances and complexities of actually saving money. My team had all experienced variations of the savings stories that the people in our study were telling us. We spent days of hallway and lunch conversations telling each other stories about our romantic lives and how that influenced our savings goals.

Since they were able to “catch” the emotions of others, and were seeing a lot of difference sets of emotions and experiences, emotional empathy acted as springboard to cognitive empathy*—being able to clearly see and know the patterns of what another person is thinking — exactly the type of empathy we need to understand people who are different from ourselves, like our customers. The team had a collective “a-ha” moment that saving money wasn’t as straightforward as making sure one had enough for an emergency fund, or separating a want from a need: savings was tangled in a lot of identity values that needed to be navigated and negotiated when one of us—or one of our customers — is in a relationship.

We realized that we couldn’t create a great savings tool for our customers without making sure it also worked for “couple life” and couples’ shared values. Thus, “Annalise’s boyfriend” was recognized in the creation of a new persona fork, “Couple Annalise.” We let all the stories from Couple Annalise challenge and change our roadmaps and product strategy.

The couple insight taught us that to actually follow the best practice of not designing for ourselves, we had spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves.

Our patterns recognized, we found ourselves with a new super power: excellent vision into the patterns of others. Before we did that possibly indulgent dive into our own lives, the team just couldn’t see the patterns in other people. Empathy, we found out, requires a warm-up. Because we nurtured self-awareness, we could see the actual needs of our customers, and, as a payoff, it became noticeably easier to design for our Millennial “Couple Annalise” (aka “not ourselves”). We, as a big team, had all arrived together at the holy grail of design thinking: actual empathic user-centered design.

The Role of Self-Awareness in Empathy

As designers and researchers, we talk a lot about building empathy. But one of the steps we tend to skip—or do informally—is the most important: allowing the emotional empathy “contagion” to activate the first bit of cognitive empathy: self-awareness. If we don’t understand ourselves, it is nearly impossible to see how others are truly different or similar to us. We need to use ourselves as a baseline measuring tool. And that measuring tool needs to be calibrated. Psychologists recently published a study to explain why self-awareness is so important to understanding others. “Empathy is technically “other-awareness,” so it’s literally the direct counterpart to “self-awareness.” **
Putting on my researcher observational hat, seeing the team gravitate toward self-awareness before “other-awareness,” on instinct, made me think about what I do in the earliest foundational stages of new product research. When we are trying to wrap our heads around a new problem space or product space, we tend to tell a lot of stories about our own lives as we cluster Post-It Notes, and build spreadsheets, but we don’t talk about doing this self-awareness storytelling as a distinct and purposeful step. We need to spend time activating our own emotional/cognitive empathy springboards.

You need to get your teams to think more about themselves. Your researchers and designers likely do it naturally as part of their side-of-desk process, but building a really robust human-centered product foundation happens we purposefully do self-awareness activities with your entire team.

The Financial Dating Game

Since we can’t always take our entire team on empathy interviews (but that would be amazing), I gamified “couple money”, so our teams working on couple-related money puzzles could build self-awareness/empathy in a fast, and dare I say fun, way.

Download and Print the Game Here

To build the game, I found a set of common patterns within the couple stories that started the team’s relationship hallway chats and in our user interviews. One of the things I’ve learned after interviewing hundreds of people about money is that nobody is naturally good at all aspects of money. We tend to favor either short, medium, or long-term goals, which means—because we value some things over others—we sacrifice optimizing at least one of those time buckets. For example, I once interviewed a gentleman who was excellent at long-term money—he had a Roth IRA set up since the his first job in high school—but the medium-term goal of saving for a couch seemed like a nearly impossible feat. His long-term focus was in conflict with prioritizing the medium-term wish.

While I have yet to find an individual with all the money skills, I’ve found a lot of couples who can fill the entire game board. These couples tend to be best at money management in their houses because they are the ones who have learned to appreciate their financial opposites and have collectively mastered short, medium, and long-term money skills for the house. This is an amazing feat, since we all tend to be attracted to those who share our money values, not those who diversify them. What usually happens is that our financial opposites totally annoy us and we like to hang out with the people who are most similar to us. This can be bad for our finances and relationships. It can be even worse for the products we build because we only will build things for people like us.

But, building the game wasn’t completely altruistic. I, myself, had definitely fallen into these money traps and relationship money wobbles, until I fell for my financial opposite.

Empathy Pre-Work in the Science Lab of My Own Relationship

As a researcher, I consider myself the team leader of empathy. I pride myself on finding a way to understand everyone. But one of the hardest people to develop empathy for was the one I love the most: my now-fiance, Joshua.

One of the infamous tales from our couple life is The Great Shower Curtain Battle of 2015. Joshua and I had just moved into a new apartment. We needed a shower curtain. As a designer in school, I chose a lovely Thomas Paul octopus model. I make things and value people who make nice things, so I’m willing to spend my money on a $150 shower curtain. Joshua, my beloved deal hunter, thought we were shopping for Minimum Viable Shower Curtain. Visions of three dollar plastic liners appeared in my head. Fighting on the level of sleeping on the couch ensued. I unhappily picked out a $15 sale Crate and Barrel model that was lovely and affordable. Joshua ordered the Octopus shower curtain and installed it in our bathroom. Compromise was made, but nobody was happy.

People Have Different Financial Personalities and Strengths

Before I was a money researcher and needed to understand my own money-self, money fights like to Great Shower Curtain Battle could have been relationship-ending fights.

The first step in couple money is talking about couple money. So, we bravely began to talk by opening our bank accounts to each other, and making more big financial decisions together. I, luckily, got to go into mine with a lot of stories from savings research in my brain, and what could be considered the first iteration of the Financial Dating Game. Knowing that appreciating Joshua’s financial opposite skills were key to future financial bliss. After some understanding on my part, his three-dollar shower curtain bargain hunting—which was previously very unsexy—became a great relationship asset. I even think he finds my adoration of saving money in “hidey savings holes” adorable instead of completely annoying.

Today, good old Octopus still is in use as a reminder of how we’ve grown as a couple. Joshua and are way better at financial decisions —we’ve turned out to be a pretty great team. My adoration of saving money plus Joshua’s short-term ability to find the best price on anything, paired with our shared medium-term skill of investing in quality, well-designed things that last a long time is the general household philosophy. There’s more Land’s End in our lives than Thomas Paul, but everybody’s happy because we get to leverage our strengths and balance all our financial buckets. It wasn’t easy. There were a few more nights of sleeping on the couch, but we figured out life as financial opposites. We’re saving money, paying off debt, but still going on vacation and occasionally have nice Belgian chocolates. Our short, medium, and long-term finances are much healthier together than when either of us were single—or simply not talking about money.

By playing the game and understanding your own money skills, it’s easier to see and believe the money stories of others. The financial products we make become more about gaining skills instead of just being “good” or “bad” at money. We also don’t miss out on huge potential markets. When we look at people like the Successful Consultant, we see somebody when can help figure out how to balance his short-term and long-term spending, so he can master his first medium-term goal of buying a couch. Then, the next step of medium-term goal mastery, saving for a condo down payment becomes something achievable, instead of a far-off dream or a constant source of shame. The best part is that games like this aren’t just work tools, they are the things that can help all of us be better partners in life — — romantically, or even when splitting the check at dinner with friends.

Play a Game, Become more Self-Aware, Be a Better Designer/Partner/Human

At Capital One, we make tools like this because we know that money is about making the best life possible — which is always about balancing — short term, medium term, long term financial goals and now we know that has quite a bit to do with your romantic life.

Use the game to assess your own financial strengths/weaknesses and what that means for you. The cards are a guide to observe financial behaviors in your own life and with the people around you.

In the words of the sage philosopher Michael Jackson, “If you want to make the world a better place, you’ve got to look at yourself and make a change.” Now we know that there’s science behind pop lyrics — what’s good for your romantic life is also good for your design and product-building practice.