User Experience Lessons from the collapse of Wonga

Applied behavioural psychology in the world of User Experience (UX) occasionally strays into conversations about ethics. As persuasionists, is it right that we design interactions that part people with their money ever-more effectively? Most of us can robustly defend this work as part of a layered approach to the natural consumer behaviour of mature economies. There are, naturally, products and services many of us feel uncomfortable supporting with our work. Personally, two of my red lines are gambling and payday loans.

It will not surprise you then to know I did not mourn the news that Wonga is in significant financial difficulty. The previously-feted company saw itself as a technology provider first and financial service provided second – much has been made of their skill in the former that led to success in the latter.

Wonga is a powerful example of the deployment of many pieces of behavioural design, working together. Firstly, marketing to vulnerable segments, then underplaying the interest rates, using infantile creative that trivialised moderation, and their addictive user interface was just one part of that. That interface meant reduced friction, making it unbelievably easy for the distressed consumer to request instant cash.

Consider how their approach mapped to the EAST framework for behaviour change:

  • Their homepage sliders simply asked “how much cash do you want?” and “how long do you want it for” appealing to our avarice instinct. (easy, attractive)
  • They highlighted that you could have the cash in minutes. (timely)
  • They used design emphasis to steer you away from the true cost and toward the application buttons (attractive)
  • They used examples of people like you benefitting from their service. (social)

They let you see what you could get and then applied insufficient background checks, which meant that, in most cases, you got what you asked for. This played to two very damaging real-world situations: the ability to re-float a betting habit, and payday panic (running out of cash before salaries or benefits are paid). In neither of those examples would anyone suggest that issuing 5,000% APR loans would help and that the situation would not sufficiently improve by the next cycle that said obscenely high-interest loan would not actually deepen the problem. Thus Wonga’s irresponsible lending criteria (discussed at length in a brilliantly detailed tear-down by Dominic Lindley) was married to the very worst example of addictive interface design.

Mourning the inevitable demise of Wonga is not something Martin Lewis is keen on either, and in his comments on the subject he also raises the observation that a national financial illiteracy had a role in providing the fertile conditions for irresponsible lending to take hold. It’s a very worthwhile point and important also to remember that this applies as much to the ignorance of saving and investing as it does to the lure of easy credit.

In that regard whilst I take no pleasure in the possibility that good people will be made redundant from the UX and design teams at Wonga, I would suggest that they promote themselves to the investment industry. Much has been achieved in making microsaving and investing more effortless through technology, product design and marketing, but there is always more that can be done. It might be a far-fetched scenario but if the suggestible young professional can be duly coerced into upping their pension contributions after a heavy night on the tiles whilst watching late night TV then perhaps those skills won’t be wasted.

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