Over a 15 week period, sponsored by RTI International and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of Older Americans, my Parsons’ Integrative Studio was tasked with developing concepts to provide a solution to assist older surviving spouses navigate financial decisions following the loss of a spouse. Both parties were interested in how using Human Centered Design could be used to bring innovative solutions to a financially vulnerable segment of the population.
For a more complete view of the project, go here.
The Design brief
RTI and CFPB had previously identified challenges that recently widowed older adults, especially between the ages of 62 and 72, face directly after the loss of a spouse. Due to grief, potential cognitive impairments, financial illiteracy, and financial abuse, this population is at a high risk of falling into poverty, especially during the first two year post-loss. Both short-term money management and long-term future planning needed to be assessed so as to help these individuals reach independence and financial well-being.
We were given RTI’s initial research findings, as well as their three priority segments (Independence seekers, Cautious movers, and Community preservers) and six personas.
our approach and process
We used a human-centered strategic design methodology, incorporating aspects of service design, consisting of five phases: design research, sensemaking, ideation, prototyping and testing, and delivery.
As a team of 16, we split into smaller groups to focus on individual research topics, desk research, and interviews.
Financial information is available but is difficult for surviving spouses to navigate and digest.
Surviving spouses have a difficult time trusting and feeling understood by strangers, and often, close relatives and friends.
Surviving spouses don’t always ask professionals for help.
Surviving spouses don’t feel empowered or confident to make decisions on their own.
The loss of a spouse can be a transformative catalyst for change as it may trigger the surviving spouse’s instinctual need to survive.
The surviving spouses don’t know the right choice to make, so they can easily fall prey to negative influence.
When people have been through similar experience and are like-minded, it is easier to empathize and build stronger bonds.
Surviving spouses are embarrassed that they don’t have the answers at this stage of their lives.
They’ve been occupying a dependent role and have ingrained habits that feel impossible to break.
Negative life events, such as the loss of a spouse, may amplify the mental models and cognitive biases at play as widows struggle to maintain some semblance of control.
Each group focused on one of four topics, Empowerment, Education, Channels, and Tools, and used many different methods were used to start gathering ideas, focusing on quantity rather than quality. We then selected the top 30 ideas, ranked each one on feasibility and level of impact, and clustered similar ideas. This process culminated in the creation of three final prototypes: a learning tool, an outreach plan, and an empowerment tool.
Notra - an online learning and personal planning tool
The aim of this tool is to ease the user’s transition from being a dependent to an independent decision-maker. The tool will help improve financial skills through an easy, engaging, and customizable experience that will in turn empower the surviving spouse to feel confident in their financial future.
Aimed to answer the question of how to make overwhelming and complex financial decisions seem simpler, more manageable, and achievable to users. We wanted to focus on how to make the current existing information more accessible when the need arises.
What - an accessible and personalized teaching and planning financial tool, available online with printable components, enabling surviving spouses to gain control of their financial situations.
Why - Surviving spouses are suddenly faces with overwhelming financial responsibilities. The current tools fail to provide the user with thorough guided overviews of the knowledge they need at that moment.
How - By providing useful and engaging financial education, surviving spouses are empowered to feel more confident and in control of their financial future.
Accessibility - From our previous research, we had identified a problem with users finding tools and content. There is helpful information out there for these individuals, but they aren’t accessing it or unsure of it’s validity.
Safe Spaces - Legal and financial professionals, attorneys, financial institutions and banks, bereavement services, social workers, grief support groups, funeral homes, counselors, community based organizations, other older adults, clubs, libraries
Three Approaches - PDF (printable content received via emails from safe spaces), Digital (online content and lessons, accessible through referrals from safe spaces), Booklet (pre-printed pdfs and workshop materials received from safe spaces in person)
Notra is a personal learning and planning tool, available online with an optional printable component. The aim of this tool is to make improving financial literacy skills and independence an easy, engaging, and customizable experience that will empower the surviving spouse to feel confident in their financial future. Our final concept answers the questions “how might we make overwhelming and complex financial decisions seem simpler, more manageable, and achievable to the surviving spouse in a moment that they need it.”
These guides are quick, accessible, easily consumable lessons and modules about personal finance and management. The surviving spouse is taken through several lessons that roll up into themed modules within a lesson plan. In each lesson, the surviving spouse is encouraged to fill out personal planning sheets offline in order to apply what has been learned in the lesson to their personal finances. To access these learning guides, the surviving spouse reaches the Notra online platform and can start a lesson plan right away.
For a more curated experience, the surviving spouse can take a quick assessment to personalize the lesson content and receive suggested learning plans as well as reminders through email. After the assessment, learning guides are tailored by the individual’s financial situation and the emotional state of the user.
For the surviving spouse who prefers an experience outside of the online platform, lesson plans and worksheets are available in optional printable formats that are directly accessible from the Notra platform. Printed lesson plans and planning sheets can be privately filled out for personal financial management and needs.
When questions arise and lesson plans are not specific enough, surviving spouses can submit questions anonymously to a column, similar to “Dear Abby”, which the CFPB can then provide reliable and trustworthy answers. An individual on the CFPB team will be regularly viewing, answering, and posting to a blog on the Notra platform.
To help spread awareness of the Notra program through word-of-mouth, safe space leaders, community members, and advisors can refer a surviving spouse to the learning guides to kick start their Notra experience. A referrer can submit an email address, triggering a welcome email to be sent to the new member, introducing them to the platform and next steps.
Soon after the loss of a spouse, questions around finances soon start to surface including uncertainties around bills, rent, and banking accounts. The surviving spouse mentions these questions and concerns to someone they trust, usually in a safe space (ie. bank, doctor’s office, community center, etc.) and gets referred by Notra.
Notra is introduced to the surviving spouse through an email, linking her to the Notra home page. Here, there is an option to take an assessment to personalize content for specific needs. After taking the assessment, the surviving spouse receives an email with a personal learning plan with the option to start learning immediately or at a later time. The user will receive reminders and progress updates as she moves through the lessons, advancing through increasingly complex subjects. After completing her lesson plan, the surviving spouse can join the Fintelligent America program to help others going through the same journey. As she encounters more questions, she can continue to refer back to Notra or submit specific questions on the platform to be answered by a specialist.
Within our given time restraints, we were not able to fully develop every idea. Listed below are further recommendations for features .
Material for professionals - a space on the Notra online platform where professionals could access specific content. These professionals could connect with others, get updates on new resources, and directly share advice with the CFPB.
Booklets - surviving spouses or professionals working in this areas could order pre-made booklets online.
Certification - After completing a certain number or type of lessons, Notra users could receive a certification of completion, supported by the CFPB. This certificate could be used as incentive to keep the users active and engaged, as well as a tool for determining mentors for other surviving spouses
zera - a post-loss community
Zera is a network based on trust, helping surviving spouses gain and maintain confidence, motivation, and resilience through the sharing of their unique experiences.
Outreach plan - a holistic strategy
The outreach plan is a strategy of how to get both Zera and Notra into the hands of the appropriate user. The aim is to activate different actors that the surviving spouses may encounter in their journey. By raising this problem to the correct individuals and creating national awareness, the goal is to highlight the importance of financial preparedness and lead a grassroots movement.