It’s no secret how much people struggle when it comes to saving money—according to Bankrate, nearly two in three Americans reportedly have “little or no savings.” Money is about as big a pain point as you can find, and, no surprise, there’s an app for it. Acorns aims to help smartphone users invest automatically and efficiently, making it possible to cultivate a nest egg without expending more effort than necessary.
But fintech startups face myriad issues that other mobile-based platforms simply don’t—they need to cultivate a heightened sense of safety and security, often require more in-depth user education, and have real-world implications that extend far beyond the mobile environment. When Acorns launched back in 2014, it was the first investment app in the marketplace—so the team had to convince users not only to trust them, but to do it in a mobile-first environment. Building a strong UX and design interface was critical. Five years later, the company has 3.5 million users and a suite of products, and in 2018 launched a physical debit card that sold out in four days.
dscout sat down with Acorns VP of Experience David Keegan to talk about how a strong design philosophy, dedication to user feedback, and a love for storytelling have helped grow Acorns' user base and profile.
dscout: You started out your career in film and video game design before transitioning to the app and user design world.
David: I’ve been very fortunate to have a career that’s been both really fun and a rich learning experience. I’ve always been fascinated by melding the art and science sides of tech. When I was in high school my friends and I would make short films and add special effects to them, like lightsabers—this was before there were apps that would do that. I got into motion graphics and learned how to program inside of a 3-D animation application, and started writing programs to automate things within 3-D software. It was like an early version of a playground, a programming playground, that I just fell in love with.
That's a great way to put it.
I had an internship doing 3-D animation, and through my contacts in the computer graphics world I ended up getting a job at Nickelodeon, which was really the start of my journey in the film and TV industry. I worked on a feature film and TV series for them, and then eventually moved over to Blizzard, which is one of the largest video game companies in the world. I was a software developer on the cinematics team, so still really part of the film and storytelling side of the business. That was right after the iPhone had come out, and when the online design community Dribbble was gaining popularity, and in part because of those two events, UI design was becoming a major topic people were thinking about. I was able to blend together my different skillsets in design and programming to really take advantage of it—eventually I decided I wanted to make the switch to app design and development full time, and shortly after that I found Acorns. In the early days of the company, I even did some programming on the iPhone app. Some of my code is still in there.
Do you feel like that experience is influencing the way you work now? Storytelling, for instance, is obviously central in the film and gaming industries, and it’s a critical part of the equation in the design and UX worlds too.
Absolutely, I’ve always tried to tap into those experiences and continue to connect the technological and artistic sides of things. At Acorns, we try to build experiences that really convey a story to users. We think a lot about the psychology behind how people think about money, and the personal narratives everyone has about where they are in their finances now and where they want to be. And then we try to show them where they could go and convey a sense of potential and growth. So in our base design language we use a lot of gradients, which inherently have emotion and give a sense of progression, of moving from one place to another.
At Acorns we try to build experiences that really convey a story to users. We think a lot about the psychology behind how people think about money, and the personal narratives everyone has about where they are in their finances now and where they want to be.
David Keegan, Acorns
That’s so true about the color gradient. It almost has a cinematic quality to it.
The psychology of color is something we focus a lot on and something I’m very interested in. It was enormously important at Blizzard in the design of games like World of Warcraft—we thought a lot about what different colors signified for different characters. The orcs in WoW are red, which signifies anger and war, while the humans are blue, which is very calming and ethereal. We’ve tried to build an awareness of those inherent psychological reactions to color into our design standards at Acorns.
Psychologically, you’re talking about two very different value propositions for people when you’re talking about a video game versus someone’s investment portfolio. That actually goes to the heart of an issue that’s been a pain point for fintech companies—while you’re operating in an app store next to any number of apps designed for entertainment, you’re actually dealing with something that has serious implications for people’s lives. So there are some fundamental differences in how users interact with the app and the kind of information they’re asked to provide. The sign-up process, for example, is pretty different in Acorns from an app that just utilizes a Facebook integration. That seems like a moment where communicating that value proposition is really important. Has that been a challenge?
When Acorns launched in 2014, we didn’t know how customers would respond to a mobile registration flow for an investment product. No one had done this before. There were no other apps that let customers sign up for an investment account via mobile; everything started on a desktop and then you could access the app after you’d signed up. Our registration is certainly not like a social network. We need to connect to the customer’s bank and require personal information to verify their identity. So even before we went into beta testing, I started talking with customers and user testing our registration flow, and we used that early feedback to inform and improve the design before launch. Registration continues to be a big focus for us today and the team supporting it has grown.
You also just launched a physical product, the Acorns debit card—and the process of designing and launching a physical, analog product is often vastly different from designing a digital product, which allows for more continuous development and iteration and fixing and changing things after the fact.
Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s one of the great things about digital products, that there are so many opportunities for iteration. We always want to deliver great experiences; we definitely utilize user testing and A/B testing to help optimize the experience for customers and make sure they understand the value proposition of what we’re putting out there.
But with the card being a physical object, it’s a different design mentality where we really wanted to nail it out of the gate. We partnered with a company called Ammunition—their team has worked on the "Beats" headphones and a number of other great products—and they helped develop a beautiful design and create a special experience around receiving and unboxing the card itself. We really wanted the experience surrounding the card to help to cultivate a feeling of pride for customers, for the card to be a special object that makes people feel special.
That premium feel helps reinforce that overall sense we’re trying to give users—to remind them of their unlimited potential when they spend smarter and invest for the future. That’s why the card has a tungsten core and it’s so heavy—which is something people often comment on. I love using it myself for that reason.
They comment when you hand it to them to pay?
Yes, often—they’ll say how beautiful it is or comment on the weight of it. That’s actually one of the most encouraging things we’ve heard in the user testing we’ve done via dscout, that customers really have an appreciation for the quality of the product. They’re proud to use it and swipe it, and love the reaction it gets. It’s so nice to see that care and intention from the design phase really have an impact.
That’s actually one of the most encouraging things we’ve heard in the user testing we’ve done via dscout, that customers really have an appreciation for the quality of the product.
David Keegan, Acorns
Even the unboxing of the card itself was designed to help build excitement from the moment customers receive the card, and reinforce that we’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. I’m really proud of what our design team came up with—it’s an AR experience that tells you about the key benefits of the card. We thought, "People will be staring intently at this stunning design, what better time to educate them?" It’s been a big hit with customers, with many of them sharing the AR experience on social media and commenting about it in user testing.
It feels a bit like things are coming full circle for you from your origins in 3D and animation.
Absolutely. I’ve been really fortunate in my career journey so far. It’s great to see 3D technologies like AR and VR becoming more integrated into the apps we use every day. There’s an exciting future ahead.
Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.