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Dan Iaboni

Dan Iaboni

Ph.D - Chief Experience Officer

UX of Cash: How User Friendly is it?

A recent trip abroad got me thinking a lot about money, partially how much I was spending, but mostly about the usability of the pieces of paper and metal in our pockets that we use and collect. So, I thought I would share my opinions on the usability of cash, calling out a few offenders, but first, a history lesson.

Money dates some 3000 years ago when someone realized that herding a flock of sheep across town hut to pay for the repairs to their cart was a bit inconvenient.  I’m joking of course, but the reality is that a barter system is not very user-friendly. The value of a healthy sheep versus a sick one or an hour of the blacksmiths’ time is open to debate. To capture the value of goods and services, coins were minted with images of animals to represent the approximate real value.  Using images worked for the illiterate user population, and the coins could be easily named and referred.  If a merchant was owed a goat for their merchandise, and the purchaser paid with a cow, the merchant needed to give 2 ducks and a rabbit in change.

No longer were physical products exchanged and all was good….unless you needed to pay for construction of your castle, in which case the coins required to pay the stonemasons required several dozen carts to haul. So when representing large amounts of money, coins were replaced with promissory notes that became paper money.  Now users could carry large quantities of a currency, nicely folded up in a pocket of their jacket.  While the visual design of money has varied over the last couple centuries, the underlying design has basically remained the same, coins for small values, and paper for large values, so the underlying usability of money remained unaddressed.

Effectiveness of Money

The effectiveness of money should not be in doubt. If I owe a merchant $3.00 and give them $5.00, then the task of paying has been successfully completed and I should get $2.00 in change. However, a recent experience has made me realize that we take this for granted.

While in Argentina I needed to withdraw some cash using an ATM, a common task which in itself was not a problem (although there were some minor usability issues in the machine itself). The ATM dispensed my requested amount in 100 peso bills and I happily accepted the money, unaware of the future difficulties I would encounter in spending it.  Due to recent financial issues in the country, residents and businesses of the country tended to not carry large amounts of money with them. So while I assumed that the machine dispensed the money in a manner which was commonplace, like $20 bills are in Canada, the 100 peso bills were seen as toxic. Attempts to use the money at restaurants would see merchants complain as they cleared out their cash drawers to provide the correct change. It became a habit to first confirm with merchants if they would accept the money, and more than a few turned me away. Attempts to use coin-operated laundry facilities failed because the machines only accepted coins, which were almost non-existent. When Canada introduced the one dollar and two dollar coins, vending machine operators and manufacturers needed to make modifications to accept the new coins, thus reducing the effectiveness of the coins until the technology improved.

Lesson #1: Cash is only effective if there is someone or something who accepts it.

Efficiency of Money

While paper money has made it easier to conduct business compared to the barter system, the reality is that paper money is not very efficient.  If you carry money in a wallet or purse, you have to fish it out your pockets and extract the appropriate amount, which may take a while if your purse is cluttered, or your pants particularly tight. Money carried directly in pockets can be difficult to retrieve if you don’t remember which pocket, or have to fish around to find the right amount and don’t get me started on how inconvenient it is if you store your money somewhere else on your body. And payment is not always possible with a single denomination of cash. I think everyone has been stuck behind someone at the cash register paying with nickels, and dimes. Thankfully the elimination of the penny has ruled out that option of payment, though we should give some consideration to getting rid of nickels as well. Finally, the speed and accuracy at which we retrieve the cash is influenced by our ability to identify the correct denominations. While Canada is fortunate to have included a large amount of redundant visual coding into its currency (different coloured bills, text, graphics), our trade partners to the South continue to use a design that makes it too easy to mistake one bill for another (take another look, that $1 bill may be a $10).

Lesson #2: Retrieving cash can be a slow process, prone to errors if the user is not paying (pun intended) attention

Satisfaction of Money

While rolling around in a bed of cash is a very satisfying experience, keep in mind that unless all the bills are new and crisp, they are probably very filthy. The typical lifespan of a U.S. one dollar bill is 6 years, and 15 years for a one hundred dollar bill. Who knows what the previous owners transferred on to the surface of the bill.  Paper bills are folded and crumpled into pockets that may have carried food at some point, or cash was handed over just after covering their mouth to cough.  So money is dirty (literally and figuratively) and you can try to wash it, but anyone that has accidentally left some cash in the pockets of the pants being washed can tell you that it doesn’t end well. While some countries have moved to a plastic currency (yeah Canada….and others), most still rely on paper or fabric. American bills are made with a linen and cotton blend, with some silk.

Lesson #3: Collecting and handling cash is ok…but most of the satisfaction comes from getting rid of it.

Learnability of Money

In premise, as long as you know how to count, learning how to use money should not be difficult. But there is a lot to learn about using money, and that’s excluding the complexity of managing money responsibly.

While money has an assigned numeric value, there are expressions and language that evolve.  So someone might tell me that something cost a “Loonie” and because I’m Canadian I understand that it cost a dollar. A visitor can easily be unaware and confused as to why a merchant is referring to a bird and/or a crazy person. Similarly, in economies with high inflation, the number showing on the bills is not reflective of how users would talk about the money.  For example, while travelling in Chile, it was common for merchants to say that the bill was seven and leave off another further description of how much. I would naturally interpret seven to mean 7 pesos when the actual amount is 7 thousand pesos.  Because the numbers can get large, users have to rely more on the context to help interpret. So, since I know a can of pop cost 1000 pesos, it is reasonable to assume that the meal will be 5000 pesos, not 5 pesos if the merchant asks for 5.

In addition to learning the language surrounding money, users need to be able to learn how to recognize the different dollar amounts, something that is facilitated by colour coding, and in some cases, shape coding (for example Chinese Yuen or Indian Rupee). But what about people that are visually impaired?

It was only fairly recently, that smartphones enabled the visual scanning of paper bills for identification. Prior to smartphones, blind users would rely on folding the bills in a manner that made it possible to retrieve (i.e. $1 dollar bills were unfolded; $5 dollar bills were folded in half, etc.) The folding system only works when the user is handing money to the merchant, and they have to trust that the merchant is giving them the correct amount of change. Just another classic example of forcing the user to adapt rather than adapting the design for the user.

Lesson #4: There is a lot more to learning how to use money than just looking at the number on the bill or coin.  

While I’m impressed with how far some countries (Canada, Australia) have come in terms of improving the usability of cash, some of the most circulated currencies around the world (U.S dollar,  Chinese Yuen) continue to lag behind. When compared to the barter system, paper money has made commerce easier, but due to macroeconomic changes (inflation) and poor usability, its days are numbered.  Introduction of electronic payments, and now digital currencies, will help address the shortfalls of cash, while hopefully opening the door to whole new way of using our wealth.

Dan Iaboni

Dan Iaboni

Ph.D - Chief Experience Officer

Dan firmly believes that technology must be created with the user in mind. Never shy to critique a bad design, Dan uses the Akendi blog to shine a spotlight on usability mistakes…and their solutions. Leveraging his background in engineering, computer science, psychology, and anthropology, Dan offers a unique perspective on the latest UX trends and techniques.


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