The Complexity of Simple

Everyone knows a simple, elegant interface when they see one. Not everyone appreciates it - many complain they want feature X or the ability to configure Y. However, generally speaking, iPhone consumers have become accustomed to good UI’s and the bar has been set pretty high.

In working through the design of our upcoming “Kid Bank” virtual allowance manager, we’ve spent more time on these concepts than anything else. What are the minimum critical items the vast majority of users need? What are the items we deem necessary to differentiate our app from the rest? At what point can you just remove a feature rather than add an option to disable it? In short, “simple” is complex!

Who is the real User
First and foremost, who is the primary user? Many apps in this allowance-management space are full of cartoony graphics and overly complex, non-standard interfaces. I think its easy to slip into “an app for kids will be used by kids”, rather than acknowledge that parents are the primary manager of allowances. Its absolutely necessary that a kid can understand the concepts, but in terms of setting up goals and performing transactions, the parent will be the guide. Once you accept that, then you need to focus on how and when the app will be used. Aside from automated allowance deposits, the bulk of transactions will come from kids earning money via chores, etc, or from purchases at a store. The key is to make the process of starting the app and entering these transactions as fast as possible with very little getting in the way.

Account soup
Nearly every app or website in this space starts with 3 accounts (or jars, ahem): Spending, Savings and Giving. There are plenty of valid reasons for this. However, its entirely unnecessary for the 90% use case. Sure, you want to encourage Savings. Absolutely you want to get your kid used to the concept of “some money you earn goes towards things you want in the future”. However, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that money automatically saved is money that never existed in the first place, as far as your kid is concerned.

When it comes down to it, your kid earns money and it goes into a pool of cash. A Savings Account can be almost entirely replace with Savings Goals - a specific thing your kid wants that costs more money than they currently have. Progress against this is determined by the money on hand. If you want to give to Charity (great!) then setup a goal. If you want 10% of allowance to go to Charity on a monthly basis, 20% go to Taxes, and 30% go to Savings then get Quicken and have at it. If you are busy and your kid’s eyes glass over when you use words like “percent” and “accounts” then we have the App for you!

To be clear, we aren’t avoiding programmatic complexity - in fact we built the app based on widely accepted design patterns for double-entry accounting principles. We aren’t saying you don’t need Savings, we just think Savings Goals is a cleaner, simpler experience when it comes to the concept of “not spending now lets money add up so you can get that big gift later.”

It takes a village…
At the very least it takes a partnership. If you have an iPhone, and you want to use it to track your kid’s finances, there are pretty good odds that you have a partner in crime who also has an iPhone. We believe you should both be able to use the same account, and it should just work. Most apps in the space either don’t support any form of synchronizing between users and devices, or its a bolt-on afterthought.

Our basic assumption of how things will typically go with this type of app:

  1. The Gadget Guru half of the relationship installs the app and begins to use it.  There is no need to setup any accounts - just create you first kid(heh) and start tracking
  2. You try it for a few days or weeks and fall in love.  This is (finally) the app for you!
  3. You convince your partner to get the app so they can also participate in recording transactions and watching progress towards goals
  4. You turn on Syncing in the Settings, enter an email address/password and then tell them this information so they can use the same “bank”.
  5. You are now in sync! Entries from either device now update automatically to all devices.
  6. As an added bonus, all your information is backed up on the fly so you can restore in case your phone goes haywire.

That’s it. Syncing is a switch to “set it and forget it” (to borrow from Ron Popeil).  However, if you aren’t the sharing type, then you never have to deal with user accounts and passwords.

Speaking of passwords, another common theme for similar apps is to put in place some form of password protection on the app, ostensibly to prevent their kid from adding money to their account.  Our opinion is that you don’t need another barrier to using the app (entering a password), and if you see a transaction like “$5,000 for good behavior” I’m sure you will recognize this rogue entry and delete it.  Remember, its virtual bank - no money is changing hands until you say so.

Core Principles

When working on any App, its important to establish a set of guiding principles that inform decisions.  Throughout the development cycle there are hundreds of small decisions that add up to an overall experience.  Without guiding principles, what you end up creating won’t feel cohesive, buttoned-up and polished.  It may be hard to pinpoint, but the overall feeling won’t be positive.  It may be more of an art than science, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use some process to help keep things on track.

For Kid Bank, it boils down to a few ideas:

  1. Assume the user is busy, and more often than not has an impatient kid talking to them while they are using the App
  2. Parenting is a team sport (except when it isn’t)
  3. Entering a transaction should require as few “clicks” as possible, and should always work the same way regardless of the starting point or transaction type
  4. Its not a real bank, so take liberties to account for real life even if it may offend your CPA
  5. It has to make sense to a 6 year old and a 60 year old; and be fun and fulfilling to use

I’m anxious to share more as we approach our beta.  As always, if you want to help or participate in any way use the Social Goodness links below to keep up with what’s going on at Serious Monster



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