IDEO + Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Paying for College
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Paying for College
Bringing a clean, design-led though process and execution to any government agency must be one of the most difficult challenges I can imagine. From the playful, modern aesthetic of the new logo to the clean and easy-to-use look of the college website, I feel this project was a solid success. – Jess
Using design to change perception and process for a government process is really hard. It’s not a sexy project! Loved the insights from life’s highs being financial stress points translated into an accessible, approachable end user experience. Well done! – Kate
A daunting challenge for a designer: government and finance! With an elegant, simple solution that feels easy and clear to use—A very helpful and necessary tool—very welcome in today’s over-complicated use of data visualization and impossible to navigate information. – Susana
Paying for College
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a new federal agency dedicated to making financial products and services work for American consumers. The CFPB breaks with the business-as-usual approach of its predecessors by being radically open with the public. It is committed to being data-driven and deeply connected to consumers, who are its primary constituency and its first line of defense against abusive practices in the marketplace. We worked with the CFPB to develop its brand identity, a consumer engagement strategy, and digital tools and information to help people make informed choices about financial products and services when paying for college.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
As the student debt crisis drew national attention, we worked with the CFPB on co-designing a set of tools that would help students and their parents make informed decisions around paying for college. This built on existing momentum within government around standardizing financial aid disclosures to make it easier for students and parents to make apples-to-apples comparisons.
The underlying challenge was to help the CFPB cultivate a trusted relationship with consumers. To do this, the CFPB knew it needed to overcome the stigma created by the failures of its regulatory predecessors in the face of the housing crisis. It also needed to offer consumers very tangible evidence of its commitment to making markets—for credit cards, mortgages, student loans, and other consumer financial products and services—really work for American families.
It was important to create a consumer engagement strategy and experience that would establish the CPFB in consumers’ minds as an approachable and trusted source of guidance. The bureau’s leadership sought a partner who could both develop brand basics (like a logomark and style guide) and help the fledgling bureau establish a trusted, “Government 2.0” relationship with consumers. Our people-centered and evidence-based approach to design was appealing to the CFPB, as was our track record with both federal agencies and financial services firms.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
It was important to create a consumer engagement strategy and experience that would establish the CPFB in consumers’ minds as an approachable and trusted source of guidance. The bureau’s leadership sought a partner who could both develop brand basics (like a logomark and style guide) and help the fledgling bureau establish a trusted, “Government 2.0” relationship with consumers. Our people-centered and evidence-based approach to design was appealing to the CFPB, as was our track record with both federal agencies and financial services firms.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
We started by learning the vision for the agency through the eyes of its startup team. We then invited members from CFPB to join us for research across the U.S. To gain quick and deep insight, we sought out “extreme users,” such as consumers struggling to restore their credit and recover from personal financial meltdowns. In-depth, in-home interviews gave us insight into their goals, behaviors around money, attitudes towards credit, sense of responsibility, and plans to get back on track.
We gained insights that upended some original hypotheses and provided direction for the consumer engagement strategy:
• Life’s high points—college, home ownership, having a baby—were linked to some of consumers’ deepest financial low points, like large amounts of debt or financial uncertainty. Although the CFPB was organized around specific consumer financial products and services, it could provide value by helping consumers navigate the uncertain financial terrain around life’s biggest moments.
• Consumers saw credit as a source of cash and as a way to take the risks they felt were necessary to achieve the American Dream. While “Save!” has traditionally been the leading message for financial education, CFPB would focus on helping consumers be savvy around credit by building comfort with complexity.
• People who relied on people rather than data to make financial decisions were particularly susceptible to acting against their own best interests. The CFPB would need to humanize its data in order to reach the people who could most benefit from its impartial guidance.
• Many consumers felt that a ‘good loan’ was any loan they could get. CFPB’s offer to facilitate apples-to-apples comparisons between financial products and services would only resonate with consumers if they felt motivated and empowered to shop around.
These insights were expressed in the new CFPB logomark (i.e., shining light into darkness). For consumers, the light evoked a strong sense of assistance and reliability. For CFPB, the light symbolized transparency and sunlight in government. The insights and principles also inspired the design of a set of digital tools and information aimed at informing and instilling confidence in consumers as they navigate the complex process of paying for college. The key offerings of “Paying for College” include:
• An interactive college cost comparison worksheet that helps students and parents holistically assess the actual cost of college by comparing tuition and multiple forms of financial aid including student loans, risk of default, and repayment equivalencies based on public data and consumers’ personal financial profile.
• Guides that help students and parents ask the right questions when deciding between taking loans or setting up a student account to manage loan funds – two common hurdles along the journey of paying for college.
• A State of the Nation video editorial that helps consumers understand, explore, and share federal data on student debt.
The CFPB brand and tone have had educational and paradigm-shifting impact. In January 2012, Forbes profiled the homepage and consumer response services, asking “This is a government agency website?” The magazine applauded the design of the CFPB website and logomark, commenting on how “airy,” “welcoming,” and different it felt from those of its peers, such as the FTC.
The Paying for College program was prototyped in the market April 2012. Shortly after its launch, it was profiled in The New York Times’ The Choice blog, which lauded it as a helpful addition to tools available for demystifying college aid. The CFPB also received positive reviews from The Washington Post for its “Know Before You Owe” approach, which equips consumers with concise and helpful data around the consequences of debt before they take it on. After incorporating feedback from various stakeholders, CFPB officially launched the college cost comparison worksheet, guides, and a video editorial on the state of the nation as Paying for College in December 2012.
The strategy that came out of our work continues to be critical for the efforts of the consumer engagement team and will inform the agency’s product development pipeline for years to come. CFPB is pursuing additional offerings to launch in 2013 and beyond. The agency has also adopted design thinking as the backbone for its approach to developing consumer-facing products and services, and has assigned “product managers” to guide policy and design teams through the process.6. Did the context of your project change throughout its development? If so, how did your understanding of the project change?
When we began working together, CFPB employed about 75 people. Everyone on staff had been a part of its start-up team—and could fit in a single (large) meeting room to get updates and to share their ideas. By the time we launched the beta version of the College Cost Comparison Worksheet in April of 2012, CFPB had grown to more than 1,000 employees. We had to find new, more formal ways of helping a rapidly expanding client organization understand and engage with the brand and consumer strategy. In addition to integrating the consumer engagement strategy into employee onboarding, CFPB and our design firm also designed a set of shareable guides to the organization's core values, brand style, and approach to consumer experience design.
The consumer insights and principles gleaned from our work and the design strategy are now a foundational part of onboarding for the CFPB, and they are used to anchor new employees in the agency’s purpose and vision.