With its bright pineapples and “kiwifruit brown”, Sharesies has changed the visual game for investing. Can the startup teach banks some new tricks? Charles Anderson finds the future of personal finance is visual, interactive and customer-focused.
Ben Crotty’s “key moment of truth” came in the form of a particular shade of brown. He had spent several months on the Kiwibank Fintech Accelerator helping design a new web app, called Sharesies, that aimed to make investing an easy, and even attractive, thing to do. The whole process seemed a bit exclusive to Crotty and fellow founder Sonya Williams. “It seemed like we couldn’t afford to invest,” Crotty says. “I thought I’d have to do what my grandfather did which was take night classes.” But that seemed a bit hard.
Crotty has a background in graphic design and was looking for a way to develop an experience that was fun. So he created a visual tone for Sharesies that was bright, inviting and generally candy-like. But he couldn’t quite get past the notion that, over the course of time, colours in the financial world had sometimes been used to denote unhelpful things. For example, when a number goes up it’s often green or black. If it’s down it’s red. Green is good. Red is bad. Green is hold tight. Red is panic. “It didn’t seem to be the way you really need to think about it when a share price goes down,” Williams says.
So Crotty played around with it for a while. Then it hit him. Instead of red they they would make it make it kiwifruit brown. It means a fund has gone down, sure. Maybe that’s not as good as when it’s green – but it still means you can buy some more. “No one would have put as much thought into that colour as I did. Yea, so I feel pretty chuffed.” Crotty was thinking of a customer. He was thinking visually with an eye for design, and he was thinking about how he would want to be able to use a website if he knew nothing at all.
The result, of which the kiwifruit is but a small part, is an almost addictive game-like experience. In Sharesies, you can see the sharemarket evolve in almost real time as you roll your mouse or finger over different charts that tell you different stories about different managed funds. It tells you how much money you have, how much you have made or lost. It holds your hand without being creepy. Sharesies makes me want to know more about managed funds, about the macro economy. It makes me want to keep putting money into it. It makes me want to be an goddamn intentional consumer.
According to Sharesies, I’m an aggressive investor. So that’s nice. My humble $555 bucks that I have dribbled into the account over the past few months has turned into $583.40. Churr! I can see which funds I’m in and breathe easy that I’m diversified – aggressively diversified. I got some bucks in the US (thanks Trump), Australia (thanks minerals), but also in New Zealand, some emerging markets and in an ethical fund (which isn’t doing so hot).
Basically, what Crotty and the team did was what every company in the world should be doing: thinking of idiots like me. But most companies aren’t, and really, I find that rather exasperating. That’s because I’m pretty shit with money. This is likely not a unique story. I didn’t know what my parents really did for a job. I still don’t really know. Generally, I don’t talk about money with friends and colleagues. I don’t know how much they earn, I don’t know how much they save or if they invest. They don’t ask me either. We assume that everyone knows what the hell everyone else is doing.
“It’s still this taboo,” Williams says. “But the reality is everyone is worried about it. Everyone feels like it’s a personal thing, unique to them. It’s this crazy thing that money is part of everyone’s lives but most people have this negative relationship with it.” It seems to me that this reality is a pretty poor reflection on the state of financial education in this country. It’s our parents’, peers’, schools’ and … yes … banks’ faults. Of course, it’s mine too. Sure, I could have gone to night school, or watched some YouTube videos or read some more blogs or books. But really all I want is my bank to show me some pretty and useful visualisations of what my money means to me.
However, from the time that I first opened my bank account at the age of 15 to now – 17 years – there has hardly been any change to what I see when I login to online banking. You type in your barely-remembered customer number, then your password, and then you see a list of accounts and their corresponding balances. Numbers. I hate numbers. It’s the same now as it was in 2002. And really, that’s not much different to what banks have been doing for decades – printed statements showing exactly the same thing.
Think about that. Think about the advances in communication, both in content and media over 17 years. In all that time, banks (I belong to three of them) still can only tell us a number – not what it means, not what will happen if I do certain things with it. I’m just left with a number that goes up and down. Maybe if you’re lucky they will make it green and red.
“You’re bang on the mark,” says Kiwibank’s Anand Ranchord. That’s a relief. “That kind of mindset reflects a historical practice of how products have been created.” Ranchord is not a banker, per se. He heads up the bank’s experience and design team. He is tasked with making things that customers want to use. “The reality is, I don’t think bankers at large have looked at this. With banks, the customer experience started with how to deliver a good front-of-house in a branch. But now it’s a combination of being smart with data, design and visualisation. These are skills that are completely foreign to most banks.”
Ranchord says when he first started working in banking, the money men would come up with an idea, think it was a good one and then go through a bureaucratic process of getting it signed off. Then everyone would agree it was a good idea and then it would be palmed off to a user experience designer to make it actually function for real people. “Now we are starting with the customer in mind. What are their behaviours? At the start, what are the motivations and key steps that we need to design explicitly for?”
But even their own metrics might lie to them. For example, just because someone is spending a lot of time in online banking doesn’t necessarily mean they are understanding what’s going on. For all the banks know, the customer might have just left themselves logged in while they cry into a pile of bills. So now, Ranchord says, banks are looking to create products for customers first.
Kiwibank is developing ways to show customers how much money they might need to save to hit the goals they want. “You don’t need to go to a financial advisor to see that and get to a key moment of truth.”
That’s marketing speak for figuring something out. Product designers depend on it, they build for it. Ben Crotty made kiwifruit brown for it. You can tell people to budget, Ranchord says, but sometimes they just need to be shown. Which is where data visualisation and design comes into its own. “Data visualisation is basically getting an understanding from complex patterns,” explains co-founder of Elements Data Studio and ex New Zealand Herald data editor Harkanwal Singh. “Then, if you make them interactive then you give ownership of it to your audience. That is very powerful.”
How could being able to see your debt growing, for example, change your behaviour? Think of someone who has just opened up a credit card account. Maybe they start getting a little Floyd Mayweather with it. Before long they may be drowning in debt and crying into their Taylor Swift ticket stubs. But early on, if that person had been shown a visualisation demonstrating what will happen if that spending continued, I believe it would be a greater deterrent to generally being an idiot.
“The interesting thing is that banks have an incredible amount of data on you and me and our spending habits,” says Harkanwal. “But it’s quite opaque.” “That sort of visualisation isn’t seen as an essential service. Do they want people to have better financial literacy? It’s an investment to run and maintain something like that.” Harkanwal says there are plenty of tools out there that do very interesting things with your bank data but they are run by third parties which require the customer to sniff them out and then use them. The effect, he says, speaks to the entire philosophy behind data visualisation – making things understandable.
Michael Brough, of data studio Dotlovesdata, says companies like Sharesies get that.“They have no legacy holding them back they are really limited by their imagination. It’s a lot harder in a banking environment to make things happen.” Also he says it’s harder for banks to make the link between presenting something in a beautiful interface and how that will improve the customer experience. “It’s no excuse from a bank point of view of why it hasn’t been done but increasingly they are seeing that to stay relevant in this world of technology and design you have to think in this way.”
And Ranchord found that showing people what their money looked like beyond a dollar value really did have value. Their data showed that when people understood their moment of truth, they actually put more money into their goals. It’s a trend he says will increasingly inform what they do. “We are working to make the everyday banking space something more meaningful.”
Sharesies’ Williams hopes that “something more meaningful” translates into New Zealanders who are generally more informed about their money, who understand it. “It’s about making that conversation about money less taboo, less awkward.” I’d appreciate that.
The Spinoff’s business content is brought to you by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.