Moneythink header

Impact Highlights

Design Team

3 designers


Moneythink, CauseLabs,


Six weeks for design; Four weeks for development


Chicago, IL

Moneythink Mobile

Designing Digital Tools to Build Financial Literacy

In Chicago’s public high schools, many teens get their first formal taste of financial literacy training thanks to a mentoring program called Moneythink. Founded by students from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the volunteer-run program teaches strategies like how to budget, save, and build credit. It’s an innovative model that has scaled rapidly. To further cement their teachings outside the classroom—where real-life financial decisions are made—Moneythink partnered with and CauseLabs to develop a mobile app to put tools in students’ hands when they’re making spending decisions for themselves.


Working closely with the high school students, and CauseLabs created an interactive, social mobile app that encourages participants to track and share their financial behaviors in an unintimidating, peer-to-peer context. An Android version of the app is currently live in the Google Play store and Moneythink has recently completed a pilot with over 100 students in high schools on Chicago’s South and West sides. Learnings from the pilot are now being assessed, and the app’s creators are preparing to develop an iOS option in addition to the existing Android version. The full app experience will launch in fall 2014 for both operating systems, with the goal of reaching a wider circle of schools and organizations.



Over the course of six weeks, the team made two trips into the field to observe the Moneythink mentoring program in context, and to better understand the students’ experiences in school and at home. Interviews focused on how students use their mobile phones, what apps they like, and what they gain from heavy use of social media. “We found there was a great energy around young people sharing and getting feedback and affirmation about themselves,” observed John Won, the team’s project lead. The team witnessed the popularity of apps like Snapchat, and the ubiquity of selfies as a primary mode of sharing. “We wanted to capture the fun and the currency of being a young person, socializing with friends.”

One of the team’s main insights in this phase was that young people do not have regular sources of income, so it’s hard to follow traditional financial practices, like setting a monthly budget. They tend to receive money around holidays and on their birthdays, and then plan their purchases around those inflows. The team also observed that spending goals were often motivated by the desire for peer affirmation; a kid might save $200 to buy a pair of sneakers that would draw approval from friends. “If that’s normal,” Won reflects, “how do we stop labeling the sneakers as reckless spending, but rather find tools that are better suited to take advantage of these spending patterns?”


Initially, the team envisioned an app that would merge a model with game dynamics, leveraging the “gamification” trend in technology for youth. One idea arose from the possibility of encouraging students to use eBay or Craigslist to sell items they weren’t using. Another revolved around celebrating instances when they resisted the temptation to spend.

Based on early interviews, however, the designers found that without a social element, the students weren’t particularly engaged. At this stage, the team created a more flexible platform where they could issue interactive financial challenges. Using an Instagram-style format, the first challenge invited students to post a photo at the moment of a purchasing decision, then tag it “spend” or “save.” Other students could then like and comment on the photos, creating a positive feedback dynamic that spurred continued engagement.


As part of the project timeline, the team released live prototypes of the app in several Chicago high schools, using two different challenges to evaluate user engagement. One challenge, the “Business Selfie,” was geared toward helping students dress appropriately for interviews. Thought the classroom version of this exercise would have involved looking at photos and talking about etiquette, the app enabled the experience to be interactive, personal, and fun. Students went into their own closets, selected an outfit, and shared it with friends. “The challenge let them apply theory to action,” explains Won, “This is a core element of the app design: shifting from in-classroom to in-context, from in-theory to applied, from once a week to real-time, from mentor to peer.”

Method Spotlight

Co-Creation Session

The people you’re designing for can tell you plenty, and they can show you more. Here’s how to further incorporate them into your design process.

In designing technology for teenagers, the input of those young users is critical to creating something appropriate and engaging. Without their enthusiasm, the product is dead in the water. In the case of Moneythink, the designers asked the stakeholders how they would design their own app, inviting them to sketch screen interfaces and invent challenges. Human-centered design is all about designing for adoption, and you can’t be more confident that the person you’re designing for will use what you’ve made than when they help make it themselves.

Once the prototypes were in use, the spirit of co-creation was all the more valuable. Knowing they were safe and welcome to give their feedback, the students were able to voice their desires for social features. and CauseLabs may not have realized as outside observers just how make-or-break this element of the app was to get students to use it on a regular basis.

Once we understood how crucial the social platform was and were able to integrate it into the app, learnings continued to emerge thanks to feedback from the teachers and mentors who work with the Moneythink program. During the first pilot, for example, program leaders observed that students would take a photo and upload it to the app, but refrain from posting for fear of being the first to participate. “This speaks to the peer dynamic,” says Won, “When the stakes are high, there’s a need for critical mass. How do you get the first post to be warm not cold?” In the next iteration, he says, the mentor makes the first post, “so there’s always someone in the water.”