When you think about how fintech products are created, you might picture a coder sitting behind a desk at a computer. While coders certainly play a critical role, good financial products get their start in the field, shaped by the voices and needs of their users. Unfortunately, most of the digital financial products currently available to people in Latin America are too expensive, difficult to use, or inappropriately designed for the low-income people and small businesses who need them most.
Developing relevant financial services for low-income households and small businesses — services that can have a meaningful impact on people’s financial health — is not straightforward. These customers often lack financial records and have limited experience with formal financial services, making it difficult for providers to pinpoint their needs. Moreover, many of these customers distrust formal financial services and hold negative beliefs around account ownership and credit.
To develop financial services that improve financial health for low-income people, Accion Global Advisory Solutions, with support from MetLife Foundation, partnered with fintechs, cooperatives, and traditional financial service providers (FSPs) in Chile and Mexico. Accion worked with these partners to design and launch digital products and services to reach underserved people, improve their financial health, help them maintain resilience against adversity, and enable them to seize opportunities.
First, we had to gain a deep understanding of their customer’s financial behaviors, pain points, ambitions, attitudes, and capabilities. In each partnership, the team began with an intensive research process to understand the financial, business, and digital capabilities that customers were missing. This allowed us to comprehend how financial products might improve their lives, understand how their beliefs and past experiences influence their financial decisions, and learn what capability building interventions products were needed to close such gaps and drive product adoption. These findings shaped product design and features, both fundamental and cosmetic user experience, which were all critical to the products’ success.
In Querétaro, Mexico, we partnered with Caja Bienestar, a cooperative seeking to increase lending among microentrepreneurs. However, like many lenders, they found that owners were more comfortable taking out loans from their suppliers and distributors, even if that credit was more expensive than that offered by the cooperative. For example, Jorge Luis Prado, owner of a construction supplies store, was accustomed to buying inventory on credit from his supplier to secure reasonable prices, noting that “my own competitiveness depends on securing good prices from suppliers.” In our research, we found that entrepreneurs dislike credit with interest rates. As Jose Eduardo Ruiz Suarez, Commercial Director of Caja Bienestar, notes, “Many had bad experiences with credit and felt that interest rates could easily get out of hand.” Instead, customers reported they preferred fixed fees which felt safer and less risky. The finding helped Caja Bienestar design a product with a pricing structure that their clients preferred.
Caja Popular Cerano, a cooperative in Mexico, struggled to attract youth. Accion held focus groups with young people to understand their habits and expectations from a financial service provider. When the team learned that almost half of them were spending at least four hours a day online, they realized that social media was an entry point for digital banking services. In response, they integrated several aspects from social media experiences into their mobile banking app. For example, the new product allows users to choose an avatar who receives encouraging and congratulatory messages throughout the banking experience. While the avatars do not necessarily impact the underlying financial product, they make the product appealing to the target segment.
In Chile, RedCapital — a crowdfunding platform that provides credit to microentrepreneurs — aimed to improve lending among microbusinesses. Research with small business owners revealed that they were uncomfortable providing sensitive financial information over an app or an online portal. Instead, they wanted to speak to a person and feel confident that their data was secure. In response, the team designed a chatbot to mimic a conversation with a human. The resulting product is digital but still provides a more human experience, so users feel comfortable with the experience.
In each of these examples, careful, qualitative, and behavioral field research allowed the team to uncover simple but effective insights to design digital financial products and services that aim to improve customers’ financial health. This approach to research, design, and implementation process is not easy to undertake as the results are not clear from the outset and it is not simple to integrate them all into a product value proposition. However, the experience of the Accion team and its partners suggests that it is well worth it.
Read more about the insights we learned from this project in our new paper, How providers can build products that improve financial health: Examples from Mexico and Chile. We share five case studies about our work with Chilean and Mexican partners over the past three and a half years. We hope that this paper will help financial service providers develop and optimize financial health-centric products that will lead to meaningful changes in the financial lives of underserved customers.