Product design tools to boost customer uptake: Human-centered design and iteration in digital financial services in Zambia

Product design tools to boost customer uptake: Human-centered design and iteration in digital financial services in Zambia

This blog post was written by Nandini Harihareswara from UNCDF and Camilla Zanzanaini from 17 Triggers as part of the UNCDF Mobile Money for the Poor Programme
January 10 , 2017

Image #1 below: Target Persona created with civil servants during Focus Group Discussion in Kabwe, Zambia.

Image #2 below: A sample section of Zoona’s customer journey. The red dots represent current ‘headaches’ in the journey.

Lusaka, ZAMBIA - 

Understanding your customer is the key to any successful marketing venture. However, too often, products are designed with little knowledge of end users. In this blog post we describe how human-centered design and iterative testing can support DFS providers in their efforts to improve customer experience and develop products and services that are aligned with customers’ needs.

A wooden cane rattled on the grilled window of the mobile money booth. Elina, the teller, completes her transaction with the customer in front of her and then turns to the old man standing at the side window.

Oh…she thought, it's the blind beggar. He often lingers around the booth, asking people for spare change, usually with two children in tow. But today is different. Today he has something to offer.

"Can I deposit some money into my account?" he asks.

Surprised, Elina begins the process on her mobile phone. "Of course sir, how much would you like to deposit?"

"5 Zambian Kwacha." The equivalent of USD 50 cents.

As she begins to process the transaction, she feels a mixture of pride and shame. Shame, to have cynically assumed that this man had dropped by to be a nuisance. Pride, to be part of launching a new digital financial service in Zambia called SUNGA. This new service launched by Zoona is an account where customers can keep their money safe. SUNGA is accessible to all, including this man, a man who lives on the side of the road, a man who despite his meager means manages to scrape together a few coins each day to save.

This is what financial inclusion is about. Where else would such a customer keep his money? Certainly not at the bank whose account conditions would not allow his entry.

Even though this man is among the two billion unbanked people worldwide, who every day, keep their change in a box, in a pouch, or under the mattress; few financial institutions would consider him a potential customer. However, in many countries, like Zambia, things are changing – and the question to ask now is how can DFS providers design products and services that truly meet the needs and aspirations of all customers and in particular those of the poor and financially excluded?

In Zambia, to broaden the access to digital financial services, UNCDF has chosen to invest in innovation by working with partners such as Zoona, a mobile money provider, and 17 Triggers, a firm that uses human-centered design (HCD) to create new solutions and improve customer experience. The tri-partnership sought to improve the “keep account” SUNGA, by working to better understand customer needs using HCD methods and iteratively testing solutions with real customers in the context of their daily lives.


From 17 Triggers point of view, the process of understanding the customers better begins by working together with the product stakeholders (in this case, Zoona, and UNCDF) to determine who we want to target and what we want them to do. Together, we developed a Target Persona ‒ a character that represents the customer we are trying to reach. We draw this persona on a large piece of paper and try to come up with concrete contextual information about them i.e. their age, living conditions, income level, their spending and savings needs.

Drawing is critical to this process because it often reveals insights that are otherwise overlooked, such as something that influences the customer or what they might be saving money for. To validate assumptions, this persona exercise is completed by a reality check interview with real customers. We have found that using the personas makes it easier for customers to be more open and honest about their habits and capabilities, particularly when discussing sensitive issues such as money.

In Zambia, target personas helped us uncover the fact that some women have secret hiding places for their cash, to prevent their husbands from misappropriating such funds. This information helped us refine our messaging to encourage users to create what we called a “keep account” to enable them “prepare for the unexpected.”

Returning to the homeless man in our story, we have found that it is valuable to also interview customers whom we refer to as Extreme Users—people who do not quite fall into your usual target group. In the case of mobile money, it might be a truck driver who cannot drive into town to access the bank, an old woman whose poor eyesight and low literacy makes the use of mobile money seem intimidating, or the homeless man who does not have a regular income. These are people with financial needs as well, and if we eliminate obstacles that financially exclude Extreme Users, our products suddenly become relevant to a much wider pool of people.

In Zambia, Extreme Users helped us think outside the box and consider how to create more meaningful products that customers could easily connect with. Why not a keypad with giant buttons so that old women can actually see the PIN they are typing in? Or the ability to deposit small amounts of money so that men are not tempted to drink their savings away? To be able to deposit even small change into an account – that’s a big deal for many people.

Addressing these specific needs helps focus on the “services for what purpose” question, that makes financial services actually address the client needs – which is one of the major barriers to the advancement of financial inclusion in Zambia.


Once we understand our target persona needs and behaviors, we walk through their customer journey. What is it like to hear about, access and use the product provided?

Using small white squares of paper to draw each step, we visualize how the customer might learn about, sign up for and use the product. Visualizing allows us to make the experience concrete and detailed. In this way, we can pinpoint precisely where there might be a barrier to entry, or where the product or service might ‘break’. We call these ‘headache’ points.

As 17 Triggers helped us draw the Zoona customer journey, we discovered how big of a headache the process of registration and choosing a password was. This prompted us to brainstorm ways to simplify the process for both tellers and customers. Visualizing also helped humanize the experience for software developers. It highlighted how what seemed like a small step to product developers, could actually be a really difficult step when viewed from the user’s perspective.

This is one of the most critical components of 17 Trigger’s “secret sauce” – their visualizers are able to become be fortune tellers in a sense. By visually depicting Zoona’s customers journey, their concerns, and successes, it engaged the stakeholders in a very interesting way that could otherwise be dull and not successful in getting the necessary feedback on these products.

The ultimate goal is to make the journey easier for our persona. And often, even small tweaks to a journey can open up a world of possibilities for users.

The coins exchanged hands, and Elina added the 5 Kwacha to her cash box. They made a soft clinking sound as they hit the metal. The man smiled — he might be blind, but his hearing did not fail him. Transaction completed, he lingered by the window for a while, his demeanor changed. It was as if by depositing his money, he had earned a right to be there as a legitimate customer, a contributing member of society.

"Just a little bit every day," he said. "At least then at the end of the year, I’ll have something to show for it."

"It is very good that you are keeping money, sir", she said in English. "Don't worry, we will keep it safe for you."

The man nodded, took his grandchild's hand and slowly walked towards the bus stop to get on with his day. Step by step, mobile money accounts, such as SUNGA, are helping to pave the way to financial inclusion.

You can find out more about 17 Triggers here, and steps to using Extreme Users in IDEO’s Design Kit

MM4P is a programme launched by UNCDF in partnership with the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The MasterCard Foundation. MM4P provides support to digital financial services (DFS) in a selected group of least developed countries (LDCs) to demonstrate how the correct mix of financial, technical and policy support can build a robust DFS ecosystem that reaches low-income people in LDCs. For more information, visit, follow @UNCDFMM4P and check out Mobile Money for The Poor.


For more information, please contact
Nandini Harihareswara
Technical Specialist Digital Finance
Additional Information
Nandini Harihareswara
Technical Specialist Digital Finance