Case Study: Prosper
Building confidence and resilience in our learners’ financial thinking skills.
What is Prosper
Prosper is an interactive, low-risk game targeted towards soon-to-be graduated students to nurture their financial confidence and critical decision-making as they step out into the world.
Meet the Team
Emily Spooner is a junior product design student pursuing a minor in Psychology. She is interested in using her understanding of individuals and human behavior to improve her design process and the lives of others.
Caroline Song is a junior studying communication design and minoring in professional writing. Her interests lie in finding the intersection between art, design, and writing to help people create lasting memories with one another.
Yi Shang is a masters student in the design program. She has a background from business and digital arts. She has an interest in decoding complex user experiences and creating intuitive solutions for users of all ages.
Financial well-being describes a point in an individual’s life in which they are no longer worried about their income being enough to cover their basic cost of living. Beyond the basic needs being met, it can also be used to define a point where financial goals, personal hopes, and plans for the future can be realistically considered on top of daily living expenses, allowing for further financial freedom.
Finance is relevant to everyone and a financial decision can remain influential in one’s future. Meanwhile, finances are also one of the most major causes of stress amongst young adults. Therefore, we want to address the needs to learn about personal finance and help young adults to be better prepared for the future.
The Problem Space
The learning problem that we identified was the lack of confidence among young adults in being able to critically evaluate and make smart decisions around financial tasks.
The stakeholders that are affected by this are largely these soon-to-be graduating students, who at this point, know how important personal finance is to their adult life, but remain lost as to how to gain more experience. Graduating young adults are at a critical moment to prepare for their financial future as they are now in the period of transition from being financially dependent on their families to starting their career and their own financial independence.
The Lack of Learning Opportunities
According to our research and interviews, a majority of graduating students (from high school, undergrad, to grad) expressed concerns about going into society without any financial preparation, generally not getting enough exposure to related information at school. As they are preparing to graduate (graduating within a year), students now find financial knowledge very relevant to them, however, they lack the opportunities to find resources to prepare themselves going into society.
The Intimidating Nature
We also find that many students see finance as an intimidating subject and the learning process to be scary, dense, and boring. While we recognize that the nature of finance is seriousness and precision, in our case of preparing young adults for individual decision making instead of training professional experts, it just adds more pressure to the them as they are visioning their future.
Practice is always a good way to learn. However, practicing with real money comes at a cost. We found that there is currently little to no way that young adults are able to practice making financial decisions (and seeing the outcomes of their choices) without risk of losing money or otherwise having their decisions affect them negatively in real life. Thus, one of the growing problems that newly independent young adults face is being unable to make smart financial decisions, which in turn affects the rest of their adult life. We hope to create an environment for our learners to freely apply what they learn without risk.
Identifying Target Learners
We soon identified our target learners to be soon-to-be graduating young adults from high schools, colleges and graduate schools, who are in the midst of transitioning from being financially dependent on their family, to becoming fully independent themselves.
We found other educators/researchers and industry professionals to be secondary stakeholders, as they can potentially contribute in educational content planning and classroom cooperation as we think about expanding this game in a greater context.
An online web experience to allow the learners to play whenever and wherever. We wanted to create a learning environment where our target learners can come in with varying levels of comfort around different areas of personal finance and practice making financial decisions and seeing how those decisions affect other aspects of their life in-game.
The Design Process
01 Addressing Assumptions
Now that we had a general idea of our stakeholders, we wanted to talk to various learners further in order to address assumptions that we may be making, and understand what kind of experience our target learners would most benefit from.
We conducted 9 in-depth interviews with various students (from high school to grad), as well as sent out a survey to further validate our findings.
From our research, we discovered that our target learners are coming in with various levels of knowledge and skills around personal finance, due to the incompetence of classes taken, the lack of opportunities to learn the subject, or the uncertainty of where to start learning. So how do we account for that and find the balance of personalization in our planned game?
Students are also coming in generally dissatisfied with their knowledge of personal finance as it stands, but do not know where to go for reliable sources outside of their parents.
02 Planning the Content of the Game
By doing these activities, we decided that we would design a low-stakes game of finance that covers topics ranging from credit cards, students loans, housing, job benefits, insurance, to personal investment. We also concluded that this would be a game that resembles the life journey and critical decision point of our learners so that they can better relate the content to themselves and know how to apply this knowledge in the real world.
We also identified what kinds of gaps we wanted to bridge using the Stakeholder States. These activities helped us narrow it down to consider:
- Motivation Gaps: What is motivating learners to participate in the experience?
- Knowledge Gaps: What do learners already know? And what should they know after the experience?
- Skill Gaps: What do learners already know how to do? And what should they know how to do after the experience?
We drew heavily from the Six Facets of Understanding as well, to understand further features and questions that we wanted to keep in mind as we built our experience:
- There is a lack of applying financial learning in a low-stakes environment without risk.
- Consider how learners should have perspective by being a critical thinker (knowing what is good, harmful, etc).
- Allow learners to understand how common financial hardship can be throughout one’s life through increased empathy.
We chose this ‘game of life’ format to insert more fun into learning such a dense subject. Taking this opportunity to allow learners to understand how certain decisions affect them, our goal was to create a risk-free, approachable environment for learners to experience this mimicry of life to further enhance their critical thinking abilities in regards to finances.
03 The Conceptual Model
By using models of motivation, memory retention, and attention attracting theories, we designed the structure of the game.
Because motivation is a large influence on our design approach, the concepts behind our experience are largely centered around Dirksen’s levels of goals for motivation, with each level being described through different concepts.
- Susan Ambrose et al.’s principles of motivation fuel the long-term motivation, the main goal of achieving confidence as the expectation coupled with values of maturity, independence, and resilience to difficulty also being included to carry you through the game.
- Mid-term goals are motivated by the pursuit of mastery, using Ambrose’s stages of mastery with the practice and feedback cycle included for each stage to account for goals changing over time. These range from unconscious incompetence, the goal being to identify gaps in knowledge, to then learning how to fill those gaps, and lastly becoming independent enough to no longer rely on our experience at unconscious competence.
- Lastly, short-term goals are defined as the component skills required to achieve financial competency and independence, including information like apartments, credit cards, and taxes. We used Dirksen’s flow state learning model as an ideal approach for teaching these skills, as well as including scaffolding to allow for the learner to be supported at any stage of prior knowledge.
In our experience, we decided to focus in on the transition between mastery stages in the mid-term goals to identify learning gaps and fill them, with our created prototype focusing in on the details involved in a single short-term goals and component skill of apartment searching to display how this flow state and scaffolding would be achieved.
We decided to structure the game as a closed circle in which there would be a self-centered world parallel to real life and learners would be motivated to use our game to learn because of this highly relevant but low risk environment. They would be able to make their own life and financial decisions. Based on their life stage and interest, they would be able to go through the chapters of content in matches with them. In the midst of these chapters, they would run into randomized events, which keep their attention, refresh their memory about previous content, and serve to further mimic real life (as there are some things in life that just happen out of the blue for no reason).
At different points of the game — within each learning cycle, after each chapter, and after going through the entire game, learners will get different forms of feedback to give them an idea of what the decisions they are making say about them and their overall learning progress.
Setting the Stage
To contextualize our experience, we created the persona of Maddie, a college senior graduating this May. Despite her excitement, Maddie is unsure of her capability to be starting life on her own and feels unqualified to be making major life decisions. Thanks to the recommendation of her professor, she discovers Prosper, a financial simulation game that lets her play around with these major decisions in a low-stakes environment.
The game begins with onboarding, as the character you have just created has just finished high school and will be starting out life on their own for the first time. Your in-game parents take the role of getting you started, explaining the general structure of the game as relying on your skills in critical decision-making and the application of your learning. To get you started, they also provide you with some money as well as a credit card and explain the various reward systems and their functions:
- Money: The main point system, providing practice for balancing income and spending and granted based on job and expenses.
- Credit: A score for achievement and progress. Loosely based on a credit score, a higher score allows for more opinions and choices on options like apartments, cars, and loans.
- Assets: These are objects that are gained through the game aside from money that do have monetary value. These will be taken into account for your final account balance, like a car or a house.
- Badges: To reward your progress and document life events, these represent non-monetary achievements like getting your dream job or having a child.
- Traits: These progress bars describe the learner’s play style, allowing your personality to change based on choices made.
We then dive into the general overall flow of Prosper. As seen below, Maddie is able to make certain decisions that lead her down certain paths, hitting chapters of content and learning along the way.
For the purposes of this project, we decided to focus on fleshing out what a chapter will look like in-game, specifically the Home Renting chapter.
This is the first screen that Maddie will see once she reaches the Home Renting chapter. She is introduced to the general content to expect throughout, as well as told the goals of this chapter.
A chapter itself is broken up into three sections:
First, Maddie encounters the Pretest introduction, where she is told what this pretest is used for (for greater context), as well as inform her that she may skip questions without penalty from the game. However, answering questions will allow the game to further personalize where more time should and should not be allocated in the next section, Learn.
She will go through the pretest and answer various questions to test her knowledge on the process of renting a home. Regardless if she gets a question correct or not, it will always be followed up with feedback explaining the correct answer
Next, the Learn section is used to fill in the knowledge and skill gaps that Maddie has identified by taking the pretest.
She will run into screens of worded content that will plainly inform her of various information to keep in mind. On this screen, Maddie is being informed what home inspections are and why we should be conducting them before signing a lease.
Because screen after screen of only words can be taxing to the brain and decrease Maddie’s motivation, these screens of text will be broken up with micro-interactions throughout the Learn section to keep Maddie engaged and further solidify important information in her memory.
An important note: some of these micro-interactions are not a matter of doing it ‘right or wrong’, but simply to allow learners to reflect on their values and needs (which is important for things like renting a home).
Finally, Maddie will reach the Apply section, where she will take all that she has learned and use those knowledge and skills acquired to walk through the process of renting a home that is the best fit for them.
Maddie can find homes based on their distance, their price, and the type of home she is looking for. She flips through images of the listing, to make sure there is nothing suspicious or out of place in the homes she is interested in, just like she learned in the previous section.
She also has learned that it is important to carefully comb through details of potential homes, which compels her to view the details of each home.
After a thorough understanding of what each home can provide her while weighing pros and cons based on her values, she selects three homes (using the heart button) to examine further.
An important note: This section is where we want to build more critical thinking and discernibility in the learner. There will be certain homes that are simply not a good choice, whether it be odd language being used when viewing the home’s details or images that show an unkept, dirty, broken home.
We plan to have each home come with something slightly off about them, but it will be in varying degrees. It is up to the learner to choose a home that is reasonable for what they need and to asses what factors are most important to them.
Based on her choices, she will receive quick feedback after confirming her three homes, and will also encounter a pop-up that reiterates to her why the motions that she is going through right now are important in the grand scheme of finding the best home.
She will then continue to build critical decision making skills through talking with each of the landlords from the three homes chosen, asking questions to herself throughout the process, for example:
- Is this landlord trustworthy?
- What questions do I have after reading the listing?
- What features of a home are most important to me?
Maddie skims through this general section, not asking all the questions that she should be, prompting another screen pop-up to reiterate the same information given in the Learn section (continuously reminding her why this process is important), and lightly questioning her decision through short feedback.
After going through this deep dive of each of Maddie’s potential three homes, she will choose one that is best for her and have the chance to read through the lease, flagging any sentences within it that should be brought up with the landlord before signing anything.
This is followed by another feedback screen.
After completing the Apply section, Maddie will reach the end of the chapter, where she will receive more feedback and affirmation on her decision-making, as well as a reiteration of what the goals were for the chapter. This is also the point where she will see what badges she has earned based on her decisions during the chapter.
Features to Point Out:
- Ask for Advice: This is a button that appears throughout the chapter that the learner can click on if they get stuck making a decision in order to get hints from a mentor or parental figure as to how to best proceed.
- Randomized Life Events: As mentioned before, these events are to further mimic real life’s way of throwing unexpected turns of events at you. One way we are using these pop ups is to allow the learner to redo a simplified version of the home renting (further into the game) so to not let them forget the process. Another way we are using them is to help with overall budget management.
After going through each life decision path and completing each chapter in her playthrough, Maddie reaches an end screen that sums up her remaining savings and what that means for her retirement, as well as everything that she has achieved in her journey. Based on her decisions, her ending traits showed that many of her decisions prioritized her lifestyle and personal growth, not making very many high-risk moves. The game closes with some reflection questions for what she valued in this game, as well as what she can do now in her life to work towards the kinds of goals she identified.
Months later, Maddie returns to Prosper for a refresher when looking for an apartment. Her past knowledge means that she only relearns the essentials and determines what she values most in a home and what to look our for in both a place and a landlord. Thanks to Prosper, she is now able to move confidently into the next chapter in her adult life with a better idea of what to look our for in making her life decisions.
User Testing and Evaluation
We each employed 3 rounds of user testing with 9 total classmates via Zoom. The major subject matters we tested were our user flow of a sample chapter and UI style. We structured the testing session by firstly walking through the prototypes, then collected feedback from our respondents through a google form and verbally talking.
Sample User Flow
We tested with our prototype of the sample chapter — “Home Renting”. In the user flow, we included 2 screens for each phase of a chapter — Pretest, Learning, and Application. We used our evaluation session to test the user’s experience on the central learning process. We asked whether the sequence of learning makes sense for them to digest the content, and if the content is relevant enough.
We created 4 sets of sample screens with varied UI style or UI layout. The major variables of the UI styles were the colors and placement/proportion of organic shape. We tested what different color combinations worked on our learners, as well as how much information we should show without overwhelming them. We also tested what the visual hierarchy they were going through in these different screens and if it matched the hierarchy that we wanted them to go through.
Through research and user testing sessions, we took away a couple of things that we used to implement in our experience:
- Reiteration of the same information. This is a way that we can sustain interest in the learner and make sure to keep their motivation up, by reiterating why what they are doing is important and how things they are doing fit into a bigger picture. This is what we are trying to achieve through those popups within the Apply section of chapters.
- People seemed to enjoy how we made this experience fun, but not too fun (our goal of maintaining the seriousness of the subject, while making it approachable, seems to be achieved)
- The idea of questions v. directions: We wanted to making the directions more engaging and personal by framing them into being questions about the learner’s values and needs.
Additional Next Steps
- Fleshing out the greater system of the game, as there are many more chapters and overall game features that are yet to be created in the larger system.
- Testing again for motivation and enjoyment. While we have definitely taken steps to account for these things, we would want to further improve on these ideas after getting more feedback from our learners to test our assumptions of how to make things fun and enjoyable.
- Creating a physical component to this game. We think that this could be a way to allow for more collaboration to come into play in this currently individual, online learning experience by using each other’s collective knowledge to work together and solve financial problems.
We hope that this game will play a role in starting to de-stigmatize the idea of going through financial hardships, as most people will encounter challenges financially in their lifetime. We also believe that Prosper can be applied in the education sector, specifically in classroom settings. This game requires minimal intervention on the educators’ part and therefore accounts for their own various levels of comfort regarding personal finance topics.
Overall, we hope that this game can serve as a way to increase young adults’ confidence when making financial decisions to allow them further opportunities to succeed in adulthood.