As designers,

we all know the power of prototyping and user research, but sometimes living and breathing in our high-tech bubble in San Francisco can simmer that down to a routine. So when an emerging markets project came along, I had to shift focus on designing an app for India, and that time with users reminded me of what a transformative story a prototype can tell.


Putting the prototype to work

We started work on mVisa in 2014, when smart phone prices were dropping and mobile money apps were popular in emerging markets with cash economies like India, Kenya, and Egypt. mVisa is a mobile push payments network that aims to replace cash, where Visa partners with issuers on mobile products to enable consumers to “push” funds from their cards to merchants by scanning QR codes. It’s also great for merchants as it presents lower barriers of entry into accepting electronic payments. Our teams were spread out between Singapore, San Francisco, and Cape Town, so coordination and designing for users at a distance was a definite challenge. While the fundamental user experience was not complex, in order to truly transform cash behaviors, designing for users’ context of use was critical.

“In a world where competition is high and ingrained behaviors are hard to change, it’s ever more important to tell a story that resonates with user’s deeper needs.”

With prototype in hand, we traveled to Bangalore and conducted some in-lab usability testing. We also did several “commerce simulations” where we observed a merchant and a consumer interact with our prototype inside the merchant’s store. We went to restaurants, auto repair shops, hair salons, clothing stores, and telecom centers, and these simulations yielded very rich results. This was possible only with a working prototype, otherwise there would be too much “make believe” to get the insights we needed to improve the user experience.

Listening, learning, iterating

We learned things we didn’t anticipate: consumers struggled to scan a QR code because they had never done it before. The lighting was too bright for phone screens in some shops, and the orientation of the mVisa decal played a much bigger role than we thought. Buyers also wanted more steps to authenticate, as those were the securities they’re used to on their banking apps. Data speeds were not as fast as we were used to. Merchants were nervous about how this would work with their multiple staff, shift changes, and how many mobile devices they’d have to purchase to make this happen.

At the same time, both consumers and merchants were delighted with the experience. It told a story of convenience, speedy payments, automatic record-keeping, and no more trips to the bank or ATM. The consumer we interviewed at a restaurant loved the control over paying for a bill: instead of having his card “disappear” with the waiter, he was able to scan the QR code and complete payment all within a “very friendly” app. Other users came up with new use cases we didn’t anticipate—for example, the auto repair shop owner was delighted that he could now provide a drop-off service for his customers outside of his shop and still get paid securely. Today, cash required him to do his business on premises so that he could secure the payment in a safe, but with mVisa he saw opportunities to change the way he works.

Getting validation

As we took these learnings and iterated the prototype, we were amazed with how transformative the prototype was in telling the story to clients. They were thrilled to interact with the prototype and hear user feedback. They came to believe that this was the experience that could replace cash behaviors. We then took these prototypes to more public forums, like Mobile World Congress and a number of other events, where our insights and efforts were further validated with more positive results.

In a world where competition is high and ingrained behaviors are hard to change, it’s ever more important to tell a story that resonates with user’s deeper needs. In the case of mVisa, there was tremendous power in combining a beautifully designed prototype with in-depth user validation, where the prototype captured the imagination of users and clients in the product potential, while the research confirmed its resonance in users’ daily lives. Coming back to San Francisco, I was renewed in my belief in the power of prototyping and user research: together, they invite us to imagine beyond our constraints and invite us to change for a better way to live.