Transferring Mobile Money

Just a couple of weeks ago, my local laundry mat in Boston just ditched their old fashioned credit card machine for Square. The little Square card reader combined with an iPad are saving this small business money (by reducing their card fees) and making the whole user experience, on both the staff and customer sides, smoother, faster, and paper-free. Square has recently released an app which can cut out the physical credit card all together and replace it with a mobile phone. With systems like Square, or other mobile payment companies and project, from Google Wallet to LevelUp, Bank Mobile Apps to PayPal, the mobile money sector is changing the way we pay for things in the US, and Boston is an epicenter.

Another mobile money epicenter, perhaps the mobile money epicenter, is Kenya. Kenya is home to M-Pesa, the most widely used mobile money platform in the world. 20 percent of Kenya’s GDP flows through M-Pesa (, and more than a quarter of the country uses the system. With M-Pesa, people can send digital money to anyone else on the network via a modified SMS or text message. Then individuals can cash out or deposit cash via M-Pesa Agents all around the country. As M-Pesa has grown, it has become even more useful–especially as businesses are brought onto the platform, often via a platform like Kopo Kopo. Mobile payments are becoming the way Kenyans pay.

The scale of M-Pesa in Kenya gives a lot of people working in Mobile Money elsewhere an inspiration. Every time I mention that I do work in Kenya, people ask me about M-Pesa and Mobile Money. In the US, people are especially interested to see what we can learn from Kenya–an vice versa, what opportunities exist there.

My answer is, of course, a lot–Americans have a lot to learn about mobile payments from Kenya, and we also have a lot to share. Already I’ve seen lots of discussions and exchanges, but so far I think they have missed the mark. I’ve seen techies borrowing platforms, companies sharing or “borrowing” strategies and analysts swapping and questioning data. But these types of exchanges won’t lead to the success everyone is looking for. The real secret to transferring mobile money isn’t in the technology or the process, but is instead in the design and experience. And right now, the bottom line is that the baseline experience of buying, selling, or moving money is very different in Kenya than it is in the US. It’s this profound difference that makes the international exchange so valuable, yet also difficult.

In Kenya, most small shops have kept all of their book-keeping by hand–using accounting tables and old record logbooks or the occasional (hand-written) receipt. Credit cards are not commonly accepted for a very local business, and lots of economic activity happens in the informal spectrum. In the US, even small businesses often accept credit cards and use a variety of technologies to manage their business.

These technology are why, in the US, mobile money is really focusing on helping the business–from cutting costs, to cutting time, from generating new business and streamlining back end processes. Many of the platforms dwell on customer loyalty and innovative hyper-local marketing. In Kenya, there is a lot to borrow from these US systems but it will take a lot fo education and growth for the businesses to actually generate value from these approaches and tools–and for many businesses this is far far away. For example, in the informal economy, loyalty is much more authentic and marketing is much less complex. Porting these payment system ideas to Kenya will take a lot of rethinking.

On the reverse, M-Pesa has primarily facilitated money transfers between individuals. M-Pesa has systems that are easy to learn for everyone and easy to monitor or address should something go wrong. In the US, personal checks are still widely used for basic transactions, even though mobile money could easily replace these exchanges. For mobile money to take hold in the US we must understand how someone who is only a little familiar with technology, and has trusted their checkbook for years will switch. In Kenya, M-Pesa convinced lots of people to ditch their cash and trust in a new piece of technology. By making the experience easy, relatively familiar, and extremely useful–it took hold.

Behind these examples are a lot of cultural realities about how and why we move money, whom we trust, and how we analyze our expenses. Moving mobile money around the globe will change the world, but first this programs will have to take the time to understand these contexts in order to develop useful and scalable systems.


Apps or ball hogs?

Apps are usually the ball hog. They show off, they aren’t team players, and they rarely pass. I think passing is the feature technology is most often lacking these days. Every app is trying as hard as it can to get three things: (i) downloaded (ii) your attention and (iii) your data. Every relevant app deserves at least a trial download, and a good app deserves a bit of attention and data. The problem comes when the apps try too hard or show off. When an app becomes a ball hog.

I) Getting the download ball: I recently visited the Rotten Tomatoes website on my phone to see their scores for a new film. I am a fan of Rotten Tomatoes and generally agree with their marks. I am also a frequent movie-goer and visit their website perhaps a few times a week. I only have one complaint about their website: every time I’m on their website I am stopped to ask if I want the mobile app. The only reason I would get the app is to make this interruption stop. Why do I want to take up any space (memory or desktop) on my phone to cache a moderately more user friendly version of their website that is already good enough and I don’t visit very often. I want apps that have a good interface that I can’t have on the web (that’s why widgets on Android are so helpful). I wan’t apps that need access to components of my phone (memory, camera, etc) to work properly. I want apps that can do something truly helpful for me even without constant internet access. There is a current unhelpful culture of app collection, but I think that is a phase.

II) Getting the attention ball: apps want to be opened–either constantly or often. They want you to do them favors, like rate them or tell them about yourself. The worst apps apps increasingly have an opportunity to interrupt you once installed via notifications, lights or sounds. Sometimes these are great. I am glad my phone beeps when I receive a new e-mail. There are lots of apps that I want to be interrupted by. But not all of them. The ball hogs are always waving for the ball even if they don’t have an open shot. They can distract the team and are rarely good enough to play the game all alone.

III) Getting the data ball: Once you are in an app it often wants to track you. It wants you to register and record your activity. Sometimes this is helpful because it can remember you and save you time or give you good suggestions. I travel often. I tend to book all of my reservations via one website. Their app helps me to do this with a great interface on my phone AND it stores my upcoming reservations. It knows where I will be and can automatically bring up my reservation when I arrive in the city or it’s the day of the check-in. This is how smartphones will become truly smart.

But while my sports metaphor shows I wasn’t ever the best at Basketball (and the three balls suggest something from Harry Potter), there is one big lesson I learned from team sports: learn how to pass the ball. When you pass you can function as a team. By sharing the ball you all do better, even if sometimes there is a superstar.

Most apps today never pass. Occasionally this is great. Personal data shouldn’t be passed around recklessly–especially not with a bunch of show-offs. But too many apps don’t pass even when their shot is blocked. This is the nature of apps, because outside of a few though growing list of connecting applications (Social Networks, Evernote, E-mail) each app is by itself. Too many apps try to do everything or keep you there forever. Why does the American Airline app have a mediocre Sudoku game? Do more than a few people need a Starbucks widget that shows them their Starbucks card balance every second of every day. But let’s imagine instead the smartphone team.

What if the smartphone was a team of players so humble you hardly noticed them as individuals. Every player is passing so quickly and so often that they blend together until they each set each other up, or in some cases, the same one or two people for the shot time after time. This to me is the future of technology and where apps should be heading. More apps need to be proud of their content, their algorithm  and their service, and get less caught up in providing everything and hogging up space and stealing my data. These apps need to sell their strengths and allow them to pass my attention and data seamlessly between each other. They shouldn’t get to keep all of the data they touch even briefly, but I think it’s fair that they can follow the athletes and watch tapes from the last game–by keeping my (anonymized) data to improve themselves next time

To create this team smartphone, we need a few things:

  1. More balls that apps know how to catch, how to dribble, and how to pass.
  2. Certain balls that are slick and can’t carry personal data, and other balls that are sticky and carry what the user wants.
  3. Trusted ball boys who can transport the most valuable data between players or store it, keep it warm, or share it with another team.
  4. Payment schemes that reward teamwork–thinking of the economics of apps makes you think selfishly like a ball hog.
  5. A vision of smart technology: different tools and apps that are friendly team players–well compensated members of a team that know how to shot now and then, but are superb at passing and making the whole team work great.



Informal Economy and the Train

I have been doing a lot of research and work on informal transport, particularly in Nairobi, over the last year. This work includes thinking about (somewhat) informal transport systems, from Matatus in Nairobi to the shared dollar vans in New York. These systems use the open road to forge their own dynamic mass transit.

I grew up in Los Angeles and through my childhood in the city the only transport I ever really used was the personal car. As a kid who would later go to college for (a little) civil engineering, I was, not surprisingly, fascinated by trains. For one of my birthday parties the main activity was a ride on the LA subway to the Angel’s Flight incline railway. I think I loved trains because of the intricacies of the infrastructure. Rails, unlike roads, must be over designed–and remove lots of flexibility (steering) from the vehicle. From Disneyland rides to Brio the intricate networks of train tracks control movement. From the planning side, the heavy investment in rail is as formal as it gets. And as a result trains for mass transit have huge pros and cons.

On my last trip home earlier this month I found an opportunity to take the LA subway and avoid traffic into downtown. I got on the train and rode a few stops when a different type of the informal took hold. Every stop another vendor would hop into our car as he made his way up and down the train. Selling candy bars, headphones, sunglasses. Here on the train, deep below Los Angeles, on the formal subway, I was back on the streets of Nairobi or Delhi–with the informal kiosks of product weaving their way through traffic. But–of course the reason I never took the subway as a kid was the same reason this probably works. Who is the subway for? Is the informal aspect of transport in the experience, culture and business, or in the unrestricted movement? Or a bit of both?

Engagement in The Post Smart-Phone Subway Station

Two days ago I left a technology event in Cambridge, MA. The night before I had just flown in from Europe and fell asleep before I plugged in my iPhone. I woke up early and left the house with only a third of my normal charge. Inevitably, by the time I reached the technology event in the afternoon, the phone was dead.

As a designer, I often make a special effort to be observant. While some people might forget where they are, or zone out while competing their mundane daily activities  I’m often doing the opposite, trying to understand exactly how and why things are happening. But not all the time. Often, like most people in Boston these days, I’m on my phone sending an e-mail, googling some fact, reading an article, or playing a game.

As I left the technology event and headed towards the subway I instinctively reached into my pocket for my phone. I took it out to check the time on the train, and play a game or keep refreshing an empty browser window wishing that down in the subway the one bar signal was good enough to load my content. But this time, my phone was dark, and so instead all I could do was explore the station.

The first thing I noticed was how many people were on their phones. Before the ubiquitous mobile phone, you were either reading the newspaper, reading a book, people watching, or just waiting for the train. It seems to me that the phone is the most distracting of these–unless you have a particularly good book. Most of the people also had headphones on.

The next thing I noticed was the different pieces of information that were placed around the station. The neighborhood had invested some time and money to tell a story in this station. From the interactive instrument installation to the history of Cambridge timeline on the wall there is relatively a lot to learn in the Kendall Square T station. But with the smartphones, there was less attention and little idle time.

Before the smartphone, installations in a subway station were an easy win. You have a captive audience outside of the cold just passing the time–learning from your display. As long as you design for the short term visitor you could have a true moment of engagement. Today, to create the same engagement, it will take something different. You have the new competitor that has much more to offer, is much more customized, and can be as quick or long as the user wants. So how do you compete with the smartphone? You don’t, you join the team.

So far this isn’t being done correctly. This is being done backwards with difficult and unhelpful QR codes, seemingly outdated SMS interactions (in this context), and both of them relying on a wireless signal the user doesn’t have. We need to rethink this. We need to ask how and why we grab the user’s attention. We need to understand how the system degrades gracefully so when the phone or tech doesn’t work you aren’t left with a hassle or mess. We need to create engagements that enhance and are enhanced by the smartphone. In doing this, we have an advantage–these displays take place in the real world with real people, and at least for now, if done correctly, this has a lot more potential and wonder to unlock than even the best designed app.

Big Data and the Character of Cities

I’m here at the Urban Age Electric City conference. Siemens’ presented on their vision of the future city. It is not too dissimilar from IBM’s vision of the Smart City. The basic story goes like this:

In the new smart sustainable city we have a range of new technologies. Construction technologies that make the buildings more efficient, transport technologies that improve mobility, energy technologies that collect and share power more efficiently. All of these urban systems are cutting edge. They improve efficiency, they are profitable over the long term, and they are green. All of these new technologies are embedded with a range of new sensors. Everything is connected by IT. The city can be monitored and managed by its numbers, arriving in real time, at the micro-scale aggregated to the urban level. We see the city with a layer of complexity and depth as never before.

This city is embedded in the cloud and producing its own big data set. Much of this data is collected from the myriad of sensors plugged into these flows. From smart power meters, to transport cards, pollution and environmental monitors, traffic counters, etc.

These cities aren’t truly smart. They are definitely logical, and perhaps self-aware physically, but not truly intelligent. While we see a new layer of the city and can improve many systems as never before, there are still old layers we can’t see. We have to be careful that all of the new information we can see doesn’t distract us from what we used to see.

The best forces of urban life come from the character of cities. The combination of art, architecture, relationships, food, memes, style, and diversity. The sensors for this are qualitative, they come from people and must be interpreted by people. There is a great opportunity for technology to incorporate these qualitative sensors and ideas of the city. Tools like Ushahidi show how small organizations or community groups can collect and dialogue through technology in new, affordable, hi-tech and powerful ways.

I hope that the smart city companies of today learn how to use the human-centered technology necessary to bring the character of city life back into view. If we want to be truly innovative we won’t be able to find our muse in the Big Data City.

Interviewing a User: Research Tips for the Field

Doing good field research is not easy and not automatic. Whether you are doing more academic or design oriented research there are a lot of tips I’ve picked up over the last few years. These techniques are what have enabled me to dig below the surface and understand why and what is going on. I’m in Nairobi, deep in multiple research projects (making my tight schedule count) and so I thought I could share some of the tips on field interviews that are helping me to make sense of these different projects.

  • Be Patient – Good research requires patience. You never know how long it might take for someone to open up, or to stumble upon the most useful fact, opinion, or detail. Learn to be patient and see where things go, but also learn when something is going so slowly and the opportunity cost is too high to continue meandering along.
  • Find the right “users” – Be sure when you are doing research you are actually looking at all of/the right users. Don’t forget that a lot of projects have multiple and different users and until you know your market and your model, you might be speaking and optimizing for the wrong user.
  • Don’t only ask someone what they want if you want to know exactly what they want – When you are a researcher–particularly an outsider–and you ask someone what they want, that person is not necessarily telling you what they want, they are telling you what they want you to think they want.
  • Trust people, but don’t forget their incentives – Though there are certainly some research participants who know the game and might not be honest with you, many of the people you might interview or work with have an interest in your research being successful, truthful, and helpful. Don’t forget to ask yourself why someone has agreed to speak with you. Don’t assume it’s negative, but be honest with yourself. Is this person speaking with you because there is free lunch, because you are paying them, because it might help their community . . . ?
  • Be observant  – Many of the best inspirations come from your surroundings and the unspoken. Watch what is going on and see if you can reference the surroundings or other parallel events to make a conversation more clear, more relevant, or more insightful. Ask questions about things that happen.
  • Respect your participants time – Some people just want to tell you everything and use what is often your limited research time. Other participants are making a sacrifice and have a high opportunity cost when speaking with you. Be careful to not abuse someone’s time, but also don’t cut your interview short. Some interviewees might not open up until you’ve gotten them to feel comfortable and understand you, while others will always feel like you are using their time and the longer you go on the less helpful it will be. Learn to distinguish between these groups.
  • Be confident in what you have learned – For me the top priority in research is to validate or dissolve a hypothesis or assumption. Once you learn to understand a good interview from a bad one, and the facts from the opinions, you then need to be confident in what you have learned. A research project never has to finish–especially qualitative academic or design research–you can always learn more or verify to a higher degree. You will always learn new things, and be surprised as you continue doing research–but these surprises will diminish as you go along. At a reasonable point, be sure to be confident with what you have learned so that you can sacrifice the infinite number of little facts you might keep finding, for the big conclusion you have already learned that details or outliers will not help to clarify or simplify.