Warm Customer Engagement for Digital Financial Services

Software Engineering, Legos and Car Cannons: An Interview with CTO and Co-Founder Dante Cassanego

November 28, 2014

Posted by Dante Cassanego

As Chief Technical Officer (CTO), Juntos Co-Founder Dante Cassanego feels his job is to be able to tell the rest of the team, “Yes, we can do that”–whatever “that” may be. We asked him to tell us more about why he loves being a software engineer. Our interview captured the commitments to creativity, big thinking and iterative design that are central to Juntos.

“To me, software engineering is like spending all day playing with Legos. I have a set of building blocks that I’m pretty familiar with–I know how they all fit together, I know how they work.

Each time I start a new project, in my mind or on a whiteboard, I draw a picture of the thing that I want to build and then I go about the task of building that thing, that picture that I want.

I particularly like software engineering as a discipline because it’s such a flexible engineering discipline. I’ll draw a metaphor that I use to help describe what I mean by that.

For types of engineering that have to do with the physical world, there are very important fundamental rules that you need to follow. For example, let’s say there’s a river you need to cross. If you were a structural engineer, you would probably build a bridge, starting with the pylons and the structure from the bottom. You need to put some fundamental things in place, you’ve got to check these things and make sure they work.

But in software engineering, there are no rules like that. If you just want to cross the river–forget the bridge–you can start by getting a big car cannon and shooting cars across the river. You can just try things. And then you can later learn what is ‘necessary.’

So software engineering is this really fungible medium that allows you to just try things and then iteratively arrive at stronger and deeper solutions.”

The Challenge of Simplicity

November 14, 2014

Posted by Dante Cassanego

The spread of smartphones seems inexorable. Already, a quarter of the world’s population uses smartphones and eMarketer expects that share to increase to a third by 2017. There is a flip-side, however, which is often lost in all the buzz about smartphones. Even three years from now, half of mobile phone users worldwide will still be using simple phones.

Although we have developed a native Android application as part of the FinCapDev competition, our core product still relies on SMS messaging. We designed this core product that can turn any phone in the world into a financial coach because those with basic phones often lead complex financial lives.

When designing messages for this core product we are limited to 160 characters. As we have blogged about before, we employ a user-centric design process that is informed by preliminary user research. Since our process is iterative, however, we seek feedback from users not just at the beginning but throughout our process.

When we were drafting these messages for our initial deployment in Colombia, we tried to maximize each message by making them as close to 160 characters as we could. We wanted to provide our users with as much information as possible that would help them better understand their new mobile bank account.

When we watched a video of one of our users reading aloud these first messages, we were shocked. It took her over 20 seconds to read a single message. She read haltingly, painfully slow.

This feedback helped recenter us around the needs of our users who are often not only new to banking but also relatively new to mobile phones. We realized the truth contained in the quote from Blaise Pascal, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Keeping our messages simple proved to be more of a challenge than maximizing 160 characters. However, simple proved to be effective. Those who received messages from Juntos were much more likely to have active accounts and saw a significant increase in account balances compared to a control group.

The Cost of Counting the Cost

October 31, 2014

Posted by Dante Cassanego

This is a guest post written by Kent Blake who interned with our engineering team during the summer of 2014.

Congressman Pat Schroeder once said “You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.” A 2013 study published in the journal Science indicates that poverty leads to handwringing rather than sleeve rolling.  In the study, participants were divided by household income and asked to consider a hypothetical scenario about how to pay for car repairs while completing various tests of fluid intelligence.

While the rich and poor participants scored almost identically on the intelligence tests when the hypothetical repairs were relatively inexpensive ($150), the poor participants performed significantly worse than their rich counterparts when the repairs required a larger financial sacrifice ($1500).  Simply requiring poor participants to contemplate a difficult hypothetical financial situation caused a drop in their cognitive function equal in magnitude to the effect of being deprived of a full night’s sleep or being a chronic alcoholic.

The takeaway?  The more people worry about their finances, the less cognitive resources they are left with to manage them effectively.

At Juntos, we seek to create tools to reduce handwringing.  By providing the right information in measured doses at the right time, we empower people to spend less time worrying and more time taking action.  From assistance with basic tasks like depositing and withdrawing funds to savings reminders and budgeting tips, our resources enable to people stop wringing their hands and start rolling up their sleeves and working to achieve their financial goals.

User-centric Design for Behavior Change

October 17, 2014

Posted by Dante Cassanego

Juntos provides our partners with a customer engagement platform that, unlike traditional forms of customer support, proactively transforms client behavior and drives engagement at massive scale. We blogged recently about the difficulty of changing behavior, especially financial habits.

Critical to the success of our products in changing financial behavior is our user-centric design process that allows us to understand how our users feel about their money.

Understanding emotions is crucial to changing habits. As Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, MIT researchers discovered a neurological loop at the core of every habit. This loop is made up of a cue, a routine and a reward. Attempts to change habits will fail if we try to change the routine without understanding the cue for that routine and the reward it produces.

Understanding cues and rewards is especially difficult when they are emotional in nature. To empower our partner’s clients to change their financial habits, we need to understand the emotions that accompany spending and saving money. The “deep-dive” interviews we conduct with potential users as part of our user research process allow us to capture the emotional aspects of users’ financial experiences.

In an interview with a taxi driver in his 30s in Mexico City, we learned that when he was in his taxi he kept his money out of sight until the end of the day. He was afraid that if he counted his money, he would be tempted to spend it on snacks or to go home early. When he was at home, however, he counted the all of his cash savings every day. Feeling his money in his hands motivated him to save more.

The deep-dive method allowed us to understand that the context where he counted his money mattered. In his taxi, he was surrounded by temptations to spend; at home with his family, he was surrounded by reasons to save. Understanding how the same cue can lead to completely different routines and rewards depending on the time of day is critical in reinforcing good habits and quitting bad ones.

We are able to transform the financial behavior of our users without interacting with their money because we understand their emotional cues and rewards. By providing our users with the right information at the right time, we nudge them to deepen their engagement with their accounts and empower them to realize their financial goals.

4 Insights from Behavior Change Books

October 3, 2014

Posted by Dante Cassanego

The core of what we do is focused on helping financial service providers who are facing low adoption and usage among new clients of their digital channels. We do so by designing mobile personal financial management tools that drive financial habit creation among these new users.

Changing habits is hard, especially when it comes to money. We make it easier for our users by applying insights from research on behavior change. As a data-driven company, we appreciate rigorous research. As a company that communicates with people on a large scale, we also admire popular science books. View the slideshow or read below to learn insights from four of our favorite books on behavior change

  1. Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

    Key Insight: By framing choices in a way that takes into account human biases, people can be “nudged” to better decisions.

    Application: Juntos never interacts directly with our users’ money. Instead, we nudge our users to reach their savings goals through personalized text messages written with behavior change principles in mind.

  2. Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

    Key Insight: The human brain is divided like an elephant and a rider. The elephant responds to emotion while the rider responds to reason. When they disagree, the elephant wins. Changing behavior requires directing the rider and motivating the elephant so that they move in the same direction.

    Application: Juntos directs the rider by asking our users to pick a specific savings goal and motivates the elephant,by encouraging users to keep within sight a photo that reminds them of their goal.

  3. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

    Key Insight: There is a simple loop at the core of every habit consisting of three parts: cue, routine, and reward.

    Application: Empowering our users to form savings habits begins with cues in the form of text messages. These messages arrive regularly, helping to establish a routine. The most powerful reward that users receive is not the money saved itself but rather the sense of confidence and control that they feel in their financial journeys.

  4. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

    Key Insight: Not only do human beings make certain decisions that are irrational, we consistently and predictably do so. Even when we know we need to spend less and save more, we repeatedly don’t stick to self-imposed budgets.

    Application: Our products help users stick to their plans not only by providing an external source of accountability but also by providing an external source of validation. Because our technology enables two-way conversations, we help our users feel that they are not alone in their financial journey.

What Does It Take to Be User-centric?

September 19, 2014

Posted by Dante Cassanego

“Customer-centricity is a concept that practically everyone agrees with, yet it takes a lot more than good intentions to implement.” – CGAP, “Customer-Centricity for Financial Inclusion”

Customer-centricity, user-centric design, human-centered design–all of these terms refer to the same mindset that places the customer or end-user at the center of an organization’s thinking. User-centric companies seek to provide solutions based on a deep understanding of the needs, preferences and behaviors of their users.

As the quote from CGAP captures, most companies would like to believe that they are user-centric. Many companies, however, will quickly confess that they wish they understood their clients better. For companies that want to become more user-centric, the most common question is, “Where do we start?”

At Juntos, our user-centric iterative design process begins with user research in the form of qualitative “deep-dive” interviews. As interviewers committed to user-centric design, we never use a questionnaire because we don’t presume that we know the right questions to ask. Instead, we develop a conversation that is guided by the user’s interests.

Allowing the potential user to guide the conversation leads to unexpected insights. Before we began designing products for partners in Mexico, we talked to potential users in Mexico City. In talking with one 30-year old man who had moved from a rural Mexican village to Mexico City, he told us that he took a three hour bus ride home to deposit his savings in the bank branch in his home town. He had passed branches of his bank in Mexico City but he doubted that the banks in Mexico City were connected to the bank in his little village.

This insight hints at just one of the many causes of the persistent problem of low take-up of products aimed at low-income individuals. Our user-centric design process, beginning with user research, allows us to capture these types of insights. By applying these insights, we are able to help our partner financial service providers drive engagement and account usage among low-income, newly-banked clients.


Mobile Consumer Protections: Maximizing Opportunity, Minimizing Risk

September 5, 2014

Posted by Dante Cassanego

There is one lie that almost all of us have told multiple times in our lives: “I have read and understand the above terms and conditions.”

Buried somewhere in pages of fine print preceding this statement are explanations of our consumer protections. In an unspoken agreement, the writers of the contract pretend to explain consumer protection in an understandable way and the consumers pretend to understand it.

Pages of fine print create distrust among consumers. Juntos is working with our partner banks on a different approach to consumer protection that builds trust in order to increase account engagement.

As the 2014 Responsible Finance Forum highlighted, digital finance presents both opportunities and risks. We seek to maximize the opportunities for our partners while minimizing the risks for their customers, who are our users. We build trust between our partners and their customers by engaging our users in a warm, personalized conversation using an automated messaging platform. These messages turn any phone in the world into a financial coach that drives financial habit creation to increase usage of accounts.

In contrast to the fine print contract, we help our partners provide information bit by bit, message by message. Our users deepen their understanding about their rights and the costs over time and in context. In addition, although it may seem counter-intuitive, our experience has shown that making costs clear and giving users information about how they can “exit” actually increases adoption of a product.

Ours is a slower approach to consumer protection. It is more difficult. But providing consumer protection information within messages designed to change behavior leads to more informed decisions, greater trust, and increased use of products among consumers.

Financial Inclusion 2014: MasterCard Foundation Addresses a Growing Concern

August 22, 2014

Posted by Dante Cassanego

This is an excerpt from the blog of Carol Realini, a mobile banking pioneer, an expert in financial service innovation and a member of the Juntos Finanzas board.

In theory, financial services should be available to everyone, regardless of economic status. However, reality paints a different picture. The lack of financial inclusion that extends to all classes is a serious cause of concern, which has prompted MasterCard to host the MasterCard Foundation Symposium on Financial Inclusion. Held in Turin, Italy from July 16 to 18, this symposium focused on the fact that there are still at least 2.5 billion people who don’t have affordable and convenient access to financial services despite modern technology. Big-name speakers discussed ways to reach out to excluded groups in spite of the challenges and issues that hinder their progress. While this task isn’t easy, it’s clear that the symposium recognized the need to address the problem of financial exclusion in a modern and connected world where inclusion should be the default.

To read more about the innovative solutions that were highlighted at the Symposium, read Carol’s full post:

Redefining Relationship

August 8, 2014

Posted by Dante Cassanego

8.4 million and counting. That’s how many views this video uploaded by TD Canada has gotten in two weeks. The video shows customers’ reactions when TD changed their ATMs across Canada “Automated Thanking Machines” for a day.


The machines greet customers by name and begin a two-way conversation. As the conversation continues, the customers are surprised with personalized gifts. A mother receives piggy banks and $1,000 to start an education savings plan for each of her children plus tickets to DisneyLand. A die-hard Blue Jays fan gets a personalized jersey and is greeted by Jose Bautista who tells him he’ll get to throw out a first pitch. Another mother, whose only daughter recently underwent surgery for cancer, receives money and a plane ticket to visit her daughter in Trinidad.

It is easy to see why the video has gone viral. It is heart-warming and inspiring–two adjectives that aren’t often used to describe banks. In fact, Accenture’s Digital Banking Survey found that 71% of customers consider their banking relationship to be transactional rather than relationship driven.

The TD Thanks You videos makes everyone who watches think differently about the relationship TD has with their customers. What if other banks could spark a more permanent, large-scale transformation of how clients view their banking relationship?

At Juntos, our automated messaging platform allows us to create warm customer engagement that has the potential to do just that. Like the conversations that the Automated Thanking Machine had with select clients, the conversations that all users have with Juntos through their phone are personalized and two-way. Through these text message conversations on mobile phones, users begin to talk to their bank in the same way that they talk when messaging their loved ones.

Although Juntos doesn’t gift users with big-ticket items, we do give our users a gift that we believe is at least as transformational. We listen. We give users space to share their goals and dreams, their insecurities and fears. Money is an important tool in these stories so we provide users with personalized financial coaching. These conversations help our users feel that they are not alone because their bank is on their side. This empowers users to feel confidence and control in their financial journeys. And that is a gift that keeps on giving.

Juntos, from the Beginning

October 29, 2013

Posted by Dante Cassanego

Ben Knelman, CEO & Founder

The first time we interviewed Karina and asked her what she does with any money she had left over at the end of a week, she laughed incredulously.  “That’s impossible,” she said.  “I never have money left over.”  A Mexican immigrant in her mid 20s, Karina came to the U.S. about six years ago. She worked as a night shift janitor and earned about $21,000 a year — much more than what she could make in her native Mexico. Yet she struggled, after basic living expenses and sending money to family, to feel like she was making any progress in her own aspirations.

Juntos began as a class project at the Stanford design school: my team worked with Karina and other night shift janitors on campus to prototype tools that would help immigrants with their personal finances. It was a great project, but when the academic quarter ended everyone went their own way. An entire year went by, yet something about that project remained unresolved for me – it always stayed in the back of my mind. I reached out to the janitors again, who I hadn’t seen in a year. When they arrived, Karina told me she had used the tools we had created over the entire year, and had saved over $2,000. Seeing her face and what that meant to her, the changed sense of self that she felt, I knew without words that I had to work on it more – that there was something here that was deeply important and meaningful. That was the moment that launched us into developing the products that eventually evolved into what we do today.

Inspired by Karina, we’re still designing tools that change the story that people all around the world have about themselves and their money – empowering people to feel confidence and control in their financial journeys. I continue to be amazed how even in a very constrained medium (Juntos, for example, has only 160 characters to work with at a time), it is possible to enable conversations and experiences that change not just how people think about their money, but how they feel — conversations that create the space for people to be the people they’ve always wanted to be. And conversations that affirm that people’s individual stories are valued by other people out in the world. This is something that I believe is possible not just for Juntos, but for the industry writ large.

Today Juntos partners with financial institutions to make the Juntos platform available to their clients as a tool to drive customer engagement and increase savings balances. As their customers use the Juntos savings coach, they build new financial behaviors as they work towards personal goals. Harnessing the power of behavioral research, our SMS program motivates the creation of new savings habits, making it easier for users to save. Users tell us not only that this is often the first saving success they have ever experienced, but that they feel believed in – that they no longer feel alone in their financial lives. As a result, not only do end-users build new savings behaviors that they didn’t have before, but the bank also experiences success: an increase in activity rates, customer engagement, and deposits.

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