christmas, c.1984

Simple, easy, at a glance

Reconsidering the focus on data in budgeting products.

My guess: Data is less useful to users than we think. Yet, nearly every feature built into consumer budgeting software assumes “the facts” are a revelation, and users will know what to do with them. // Data beautifully visualized and categorized, ripe for the user to “see where” it goes.

Get a handle on it

Users are encouraged to bend old habits when jumping into a new budgeting system. Typically this involves shifting activities toward reason and control: build a plan, achieve your goals, make better choices, get it together.

Despite noble intentions, I’m not sure reasoning with users is what products should be building toward. Human finance is messy, emotional, and far from predictable. Yet, teams seem fixated on helping users determine if they are making good or bad choices. // Mint touts a common premise of consumer money management: Finance can be tamed with the information necessary to make correct choices. // Spending data converted into beautiful charts, which are assumed to reveal a broader truth to users about their choices.

Skewing product success

Product teams are giving users every advantage: beautiful graphs, spending alerts, automated categories, bank account syncs, and transaction-level control. These features are assumed to reveal a larger truth to the user about their choices.

Considerate features are the sign of a dedicated and talented product team. However, an infatuation with data might be skewing perceptions of success — namely, that helping users analyze data is a keystone of product dominance. // Transaction-level control is a common feature in budgeting software. // PNC has created tools that transform spending into “information [the user] can actually use” to “get a hold” on their money. // Brands like Dave Ramsey offer budget software as a means to “take control back” and “figure out… where you need to be”.

Life is messy

I believe financial service teams understand that money is a deeply emotional topic. Still, their solutions are so similar it’s difficult to imagine a product deviating from data. My hunch is teams could make a greater impact on product developement by starting from a different place.

What if product success relied on more significant forces, like community and relationships, while offering features that allow users to be messy? Perhaps guiding more humanized user stories, such as: resolve family tension, discuss stress, have productive conversations with your partner, sustain your family, and consider donating to charity.

Reality is real

Sure, the realities of finance are plotted, aggregated, and transmitted through data. Numbers are vital. My fear, however, is that products teams will continue to lean on the assumption that data is a beacon for users of financial products, and a key factor in definining product success.

Now is the perfect time for budget products to adjust the dialect of their core message. Step back for a moment — away from the taxonomies of accounting and idealization of charts — and accept users as they are.