Object-Centred Interviews in consumer finance

Researching the objects that people use to manage their money is growing in popularity, particularly in commercial research that informs product design and marketing. User experience researchers, designers, and ethnographers carrying out consumer research are leading the development of this method.

While object-centred interviews are commonly used in product development and marketing, the general principles have been applied to many kinds of consumer research problems. Object-centred interviews have been used in research that focuses on how objects (money, credit cards, wallets, etc.) prompt specific behaviours, including decision-making, household financial planning, and financial consequences.

What is Object-Centred Interviews

  • Qualitative
  • Combines interviews with props
  • Face-to-face or remote data collection

In object-centred interviews, props are incorporated into a verbal interview with the goal of prompting conversation around particular topics. Objects may be introduced by the interviewer, such as a product prototype or flash cards; or they may belong to the interviewee, such as the contents of the interviewee's wallet or the devices they use for banking.

Objects may be static or interactive. Static objects are things that interviewees are asked to comment on, but not interact with. Questions may focus on an object's use, design, appeal, or functionality. Flash cards, photographs, video, money, credit cards, and even sound can all be used as static objects in interviews.

Interactive objects are things that the interviewee handles, manipulates, or produces during the interview. Asking participants to handle objects, sort cards, or draw diagrams can elicit feedback on design and prompt interviewees to share useful information that may not emerge during a verbal interview.

Strengths

Assist in generating discussion

People are often not accustomed to talking in detail about their use of financial tools and services. Props can help the interview to open up, and to stay on topic by providing a point of focus and by encouraging people who may feel shy or uncertain.

For example, interviewees may find it easier to show the interviewer the contents of their wallet, pointing out various objects that relate to money practices, than to recall all the money-related items they carry.

The method also provides the researcher with an opportunity to ask about objects that the interviewee has overlooked. Whereas the interviewee may only point out items they associate with financial management, such as cash and credit cards, an interviewer may also need to know about other kinds of money, such as store cards, or secondary items such as identification documents.

Clarify meaning of interview questions

The meaning of interview questions is not always clear to interviewees, and using visual/textual aids can help the interviewee understand exactly what is being asked.

For example, when interviewing a person about their use of spreadsheets for budgeting, being able to point directly to a particular item in the spreadsheet and ask a question about it can save time and confusion.

This technique may be especially useful when interviewing children as it can help them to understand what the interviewer is asking of them.

Discuss specific features of objects

Props allow for the specific features of an object to be discussed. An interviewer might ask a customer to demonstrate how they use their mobile phone to send money and comment on the steps involved as they are carried out. This gives the interviewee a chance to explain what they do and don't like about the functionality and aesthetics of the object, and to identify any stumbling blocks.

For example, asking a person to physically count money may assist in understanding precise aspects of financial literacy, so long as the interviewee is not made to feel that they are under examination. Asking an interviewee to explain which of their bank cards they like the most can demonstrate whether aesthetic appearance is important to the user, or whether their preferences are shaped by other considerations.

Assist with information recall and accuracy

Consumer finance research often requires interviewees to recall details about their financial transactions and the products they use, but much of this information is either never memorised or is difficult to recall. Props such as wallets, credit cards, and bank statements help us to recall information that is recorded on the props themselves or that is in our memories. For example, asking an interviewee who regularly sends money overseas to show you their receipts will confirm the dates on which they made transactions.

Similarly, interviewees may have multiple retirement funds and forget where their money is saved, so going through physical documents can help them to reconstruct a picture of their finances. Using objects to improve information accuracy can help to counter a range of biases that may be present in verbal interviews.

Produce user-created data

Some use of props involves asking interviewees to draw maps, diagrams, and other illustrations that can be used as data. This user-created data can be highly valuable in cases where interviewees feel they are better able to represent their thoughts and behaviours visually rather than verbally. Maps and other diagrams drawn by the interviewee can be saved for later analysis, either by photographing them or keeping the physical object (see Case Study 1 below)

Limitations

Self-reporting bias

Like ordinary verbal interviews, object-based interviews can involve self-reporting bias. However, these can sometimes be mitigated by incorporating observational techniques.

Resource-intensive

Object-centred interviews can sometimes be more resource-intensive than ordinary verbal interviews, depending upon what needs to be achieved. First, more planning needs to go into selecting, and possibly creating, appropriate props. Second, object-centred interviews are more likely to require additional recording means, such as video cameras or screen capture software.

Case Study 1 — Combining multiple object-centred methods to understand financial management

Untangling personal finances can be a complex research task. People often have multiple income streams, combine incomes, or help manage the financial situations of family members. Business records may or may not be kept separate from personal finances. Moreover, people do not necessarily keep all their financial information in the one place. As a result, trying to gain a comprehensive view of a household's or individual's overall financial picture can be difficult to achieve.

As part of a study of financial practices in the San Francisco Bay area, Jofish Kaye from Yahoo Labs and his team conducted a preliminary study with fourteen interviewees, aged 26-29, with incomes ranging from US$18,000 - US$150,000 per year.6 They incorporated multiple object-centred exercises to try to piece together a picture of their financial management. Their paper, "Money Talks: Tracking Personal Finances," describes the study in detail.Here we summarize their methods and findings.

Methodology

Kaye and his team wanted to explore the range of ways in which people keep track of their finances. They devised an interview structure that incorporated a range of static and interactive objects, including:

  • Financial maps were drawn by interviewees
  • Financial calendars filled out by interviewees
  • Index cards with text for interviewees to choose and discuss
  • The contents of interviewees' wallets
  • Guided tours of interviewees' homes
  • Computers and mobile devices used for financial management

Kaye and his co-authors note in their article that a limitation with designing this study was that, because finances are generally considered to be private in the United States, it was not possible to test the methods beforehand with their friends, family, and colleagues. This meant that the interviews became the testing ground for the method.

The team interviewed 15 people, endeavouring to recruit a range of people with different incomes, employment situations, and demographic factors. To begin, they sent an email to people who had previously volunteered in their studies and asked them to fill out a short survey (see the study's screener). Participants were selected from this group.

Each interview was attended by at least two researchers, and they took place in the interviewees' homes. The interviews took around 90 minutes each. They began with general questions about the interviewee's employment, sources of income, household composition, and so on (see the study protocol for more details).

Given that privacy is a major concern in financial research, the team wanted to quickly find ways to break the ice and make interviewees feel comfortable. To achieve this, they introduced an exercise that was "something that people couldn't get wrong": drawing a "map" of their finances.

The researchers emphasised that there was no "right" way to map their finances and that it was entirely up to them what they drew. Interviewees drew a variety of illustrations, including pie charts, pictures, and cartographic-style maps of where their financial transactions took place. The researchers report that this helped people feel that they were in control of the interview.

Next, interviewees were presented with sixteen handwritten index cards. In a book chapter on the study, Kaye explains:

each of [the index cards] had a event with financial consequences written on it: college, debt/bankruptcy, unexpected windfall, unexpected expense, employment, move, family change, retire, travel, birth, divorce, marriage, death, medical bills, buy/sell home, graduate. We put these out in no particular order and asked our interviewee if any had had a financial impact on them recently.

Interviewees were asked to select and comment on two of the cards, although they report that some interviewees decided to discuss all of the cards. Kaye commented,

We found the index card method remarkably powerful. I've never seen something that was quite so generative. We were concerned that maybe it meant that we'd limit people's discussions to only the financial things we expected to talk about, but I think because we were really careful to make sure that we included some pretty open-ended categories ('unexpected expenses') it ended up being really useful." (personal communication)

This is a good example of how props can be an effective way to encourage participants to overcome their shyness and prompt discussion of topics that may not occur to them.

Next up, interviewees were asked to empty out the contents of their wallets or purses and talk about the items in them. They found a wide variety of payment cards in people's wallets, including credit cards, debit cards, store cards, and gift cards. Where necessary, they anonymised objects by placing pieces of post-it notes over identifying details, then photographed them in order to have a reference for analysis.

This was followed by guided tours of interviewees' homes. Financial management can occur in many places: people keep documents in filing cabinets and in places where their presence will prompt them to take action; they use computers and mobile devices to manage accounts, budgets, and spreadsheets, and they may store cash in common or secret places.

Interviewees were also asked to show the researchers the digital tools that they use to manage their finances, such as a mobile device or a computer, including online banking, spreadsheets, applications, and programs.

Looking at where people keep financial information and money-related objects helped the researchers to get a sense of how people tracked their finances and to what extent they integrated management of different aspects of their finances.

Throughout the interviews, interviewees were asked a range of specific, general, and hypothetical questions. These included how they had learned about finances (financial socialization), what they would do if they received an unexpected windfall, what they wouldn't want anyone to know about their finances, and finally, what else the researchers should have asked them about.

Data were collected using a voice recorder, a still camera, and through old-fashioned note-taking. Interviews were externally transcribed and photos were further anonymized if necessary. To analyze the data, multiple reviewers tagged themes in the transcripts. In order to aggregate the themes, they wrote them up onto post-it notes, accompanied by sketches and photographs. They then sorted and summarized the notes, generating a list of fourteen meta-themes and design opportunities.

Findings

Overall, Kaye reports that this study gave them a "big picture" view of people's practices, provided a talking point to return to throughout interviews, and perhaps most importantly helped people to feel comfortable with the research.

The researchers note that the study sample was small, with just 15 interviewees, and is not representative of the United States let alone the rest of the world. However, in terms of specific details, their work provides insights into the range of ways that people manage their finances and is a useful basis on which to build a larger research project.

Few of the interviewees had a comprehensive idea of their own financial situation. In fact, many reported keeping their financial information in their head—a location that is certainly not suitable for object-based interviews. As Kaye and his co-authors recount, "The most common tool that people used to keep track of the overall state of their finances was nothing at all." (personal communication)

Even in cases where interviewees used computer programs, mobile device applications, computer spreadsheets, and paper-based accounts to track financial flows, they rarely tracked every aspect of their finances. For example, one photographer tracked her business expenses but not her personal ones, and a mother tracked her college-aged children's credit card use but did not track details of her own expenditure.

The researchers point out that interviewees engaged in behaviours that seem "irrational" if considered from a purely financial perspective, but which make sense when other social norms and values were taken into account. They explain, "People make financial decisions based on their emotional, historical, familial and personal backgrounds in addition to financial considerations."

As an example, one of their interviewees was a woman called Bonnie whose parents both survived the Holocaust. She is so thrifty that she will rarely spend $1.25 on a cup of coffee, but she is considering spending $3,000 to give her $5,000 1985 Nissan 300ZX a new paint job. This move would be "based on some factor other than optimising financial gain. It seems clear this car has an emotional value that exceeds its financial value."

Another interviewee, Doug, used a system of index cards to cross-check the interest he was earning on his $1.2 million in municipal bonds. In fifty years, he had only ever found one small error. The opportunity costs of the time spent checking for errors had never paid off, nor would it likely pay off in the future.

Some of the most interesting findings concerned how people divide up their money into separate pots. Many social scientists, including Viviana Zelizer and Wolmarian Mesfin (see Ethnography in Consumer Finance), have noted that this practice is common in many places around the world. It can take the form of dividing personal funds from business funds or engaging in goals-oriented savings for personal use. For example, some people might have a bank account specifically to save for holidays, or a coin jar to spend on leisure activities.

As examples of dividing funds into pots, Kaye and his co-authors describe three female interviewees who both run small businesses. One keeps a strict divide between her personal and business expenses, keeping paper accounts and sticking paper labels onto credit cards so that she can easily tell which are for personal use and which are for business use. The second woman keeps most of her accounts in her head and retains some fluidity between her personal and business funds. The third has a salaried job but has multiple other small income streams from what are essentially informal micro-businesses.

These examples suggest that while people do separate funds, they may not do so in ways that we would expect. Some people may be less concerned with separating business and personal expenses, and more concerned with maintaining divisions that are meaningful to them, such as separating out money to pay for a wedding or for college.

Overall, this study indicates that people's methods of financial management are dictated by what is important to them, and may have little or nothing to do with optimal financial decision-making. When trying to understand people's financial behaviours, then, it is important to explore their motivations.

Applications

Although the sample size was small, this study has numerous potential applications. Given that the interviewees were not using existing systems for financial integration, the authors suggest that there are opportunities "for rethinking those systems, but also for the design of novel financial interaction experiences."

Most of the interviewees in this study checked their bank balances on a daily basis, often multiple times per day. Features could potentially be built into online accounts that capitalise on this behaviour, such as showing "prompts for good financial behaviour." Another idea emerging from the study is to allow people to have multiple savings accounts that they can earmark for different purposes.

This kind of research could also be incorporated into the design of "financial literacy" programs and other interventions aimed at improving financial behaviour. Clearly, people's financial concerns do not line up neatly with what financial planners would advise them to do.

Learning formal financial management is a useful, and perhaps indispensable, life skill, but financial well-being does not arise from financial health alone. Rather, financial well-being occurs when people are able to achieve the financial goals that matter to them personally.

As well as teaching people generic financial skills, financial literacy programs could help people to achieve their goals. In fact, focusing on goals may help motivate people to learn financial management techniques that would otherwise not interest them.

Ethics

As with all consumer finance research, privacy issues can be difficult to navigate in object-centred interviews. In this study, the researchers decided to anonymise as much personal information as possible during the interview, rather than wait until it was completed. All objects with personal information on them, including spreadsheets and the objects in people's wallets and purses, were anonymised before photographing them by sticking post-it notes over names and any other identifying details. The researchers contend that this is a far more reliable and efficient way to protect participants' privacy than trying to anonymise photographs later. Moreover, they do not believe that it reduced the quality of their data as the details lost were not integral to the insights they wished to gain.

For more about this study, see:

Case Study 2 — "Portable kit" studies on poverty and personal finances in Haiti

A portable kit study is a method of interviewing people about the objects they carry with them away from home. Studying the financial tools that people carry with them on a daily basis as they work, shop, and socialise helps us understand how they meet their financial needs. People need to have financial tools on hand to navigate everyday and unusual transactions. This can be a simple as carrying cash or cards, but there are many other financial transactions that people undertake away from home, including debt payments, money transfers, and re-charging phone credit.

Dr. Erin B. Taylor and Professor Heather A. Horst undertook a study of mobility and finances among poor Haitians living on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic between 2010 and 2012. The towns of Anse-à-Pitres (Haiti) and Pedernales (Dominican Republic) are right next to each other and many Haitians cross the border daily to shop, work, socialise, and access services.

Haitians living in the region access financial and other services on both sides of the border. One of the goals of the research was to learn how this financial bi-nationalism affected their economic and social lives. After three months conducting interviews, observations, and a questionnaire in the region, Taylor and Horst carried out a "portable kit" study with a subset of ten interviewees.

Methodology

Participants in the study were all of Haitian nationality, and one interviewee had dual Haitian / Dominican nationality. Participants for the portable kit study were mainly recruited from among people the researchers had already interviewed and/or surveyed. In most cases, background interviews had focused upon employment, family, impressions of the border region, and access to technology and financial services. Completing the portable kit study at the end of the research meant that the team had built up a rapport with a sizeable number of people and could be sensitive to issues of privacy.

Approximately half of the interviewees were living in the Dominican town of Pedernales, and the other half were living in the neighbouring Haitian town of Anse-à-Pitres. Most respondents crossed the border on a regular basis. Their income ranged from zero to around 5,000 pesos per month (US$111).

All of the portable kit interviews were conducted in Spanish as it was the main shared language among the research team. While it would have been preferable to conduct a number of the interviews in Haitian Creole, all but one of our interviewees spoke fluent Spanish. This is common among most Haitians living on the border of the Dominican Republic.

In preparation for the study, the researchers asked participants to bring with them everything they carried on a "normal" day. Most of the portable kit studies took place in a quiet area of a local hotel on the Dominican side of the border, as this created greater privacy for interviewees and fewer disruptions than carrying out interviews in their homes.

The portable kit interviews began with the researcher explaining the purpose of the research and the method. If an initial interview had not previously conducted, they started the portable kit interview with a set of background questions.

To begin the object-centred interview, the researchers requested that participants take all of the objects they carry with them out of their bags, pockets, and wallets, and display them on a flat surface. This included objects related to consumer finance (currency, cards, receipts) and other items (identity documents, photographs, face cloths, pens, etc.)

Interviewees were invited to discuss the objects generally. The interviewers often began by asking about the bag or wallet itself: where it had been purchased, why they chose that particular item, and whether they own other bags that they switch between depending upon their plans for the day. The benefit of this initial step was that it gave participants a chance to relax and the researchers an opportunity to build rapport.

Then the interviewees were asked to divide the objects into two piles: one of objects that they must carry with them every day, and a second pile of objects that could be left at home. The interviewees were asked to explain why some items were more important than others. This step was crucial in identifying what people felt they needed to navigate their everyday lives. As the interviews progressed, the interviewers formulated questions that would tell them how different objects were involved in personal and household finances.

The portable kit interviews were recorded using an audio device, a video camera, and a still camera. Interviews ranged from forty-five minutes in the case of one participant who had already been interviewed multiple times and did not carry many items, to three hours for people with many items or an unusually extensive collection of phones and SIM cards. The interviews were semi-structured: while the researchers followed the same general process for each interview, they also followed particular topics based on what their interviewees told them.

Interviews were transcribed by research assistance and translated to English, then the researchers went through the interviews to tag key themes. Video footage was summarised, particularly noting visual aspects such as the condition of money, branding on cards, mobile phone personalisation, and so on.

Findings

The portable kit study enabled the researchers to understand how people living on the border used financial services in their everyday lives. The objects people carried with them reflected both this formal financial environment and alerted the researchers to a range of other, less visible financial practices. Interviewees carried a range of items relating to finances from both sides of the border, including different currencies, credit cards, receipts for money transfers, bank documents for debts, and mobile phones used in transactions. They also carried items such as house keys, photographs of family members, bibles, pens, paper, and mobile phones.

Most interviewees reported that their most important items were identity documents, followed by keys, cash, and their mobile phones. Without identity documents, we were told, "you cannot do anything": it is impossible to collect a money transfer, buy a SIM card, or even use many services. Moreover, interviewees felt that they could be harassed by the Dominican police if they did not carry their identification with them.

Cash was the second most important item. Whereas Dominican pesos are accepted throughout the Haitian town of Anse-à-Pitres, Haitian gourdes are not accepted in the Dominican town of Pedernales. This means that Haitians must carry Dominican currency, whereas Dominicans will rarely (if ever) need to use Haitian currency. All of the interviewees carried Dominican pesos, but few carried Haitian gourdes. Interviewees reported that, when they crossed the border, they left their Haitian gourdes at home.

Interviewees were also asked, "How much money do you carry with you on a daily basis?" Responses ranged from 50 pesos to 500 pesos, but most were around 200-300 pesos (roughly US$4-7). This was enough money to pay for transport, food and drink, and other small expenses, such as topping up phone credit.

This question provided a sense of the cost of living as well as how much people felt they could afford to pay for items. It also lead into further discussion of how the interviewees made a living. For example, some interviewees explained to us that Haitians working in the Dominican Republic are often paid significantly less than their Dominican citizens, although this depended somewhat on the time they had been living in the area and whether they had formed strong relationships with Dominicans employers.

At the time of the research (February - May 2012), a microcredit bank called Fonkoze had just opened in Anse-à-Pitres, Haiti. Before this, there was not a single bank in Anse-à-Pitres, while there was a bank and a credit union in Pedernales, Dominican Republic. Using one of these Dominican banks required Dominican residency, so few Haitians had any bank account at all.

One exception was a woman called Bronte, who had both Haitian and Dominican citizenship, and was thus able to open an account in the credit union. During her portable kit interview, Bronte showed the interviewers her bank card and some papers. She explained that she had taken out a loan to buy her Haitian husband, Emmanuel, a motorbike so that he could start a microenterprise ferrying passengers and fetching goods for people (known as "motorconcheando"). She explained that they had nearly paid off the loan, mostly from her income as a receptionist in a local hotel. Bronte carried her loan documents with her because she considered it safer than keeping them at home, where multiple people (including children) had access to her house.

By focusing on all objects that people carry rather than just money-related ones, the study helped to identify the reasons why loans and capital investment might not result in significant increases in income. Emmanuel's income remains low despite their investment in his motorbike, largely because there are more men employed in this profession than there are customers to support their businesses.

In order to operate in Pedernales, he had invested in a fake Dominican ID card. Emmanuel reported that because he lived on the Dominican side of the border and lived with a Dominican-Haitian, the authorities assumed that he was also of dual nationality. This identification also saved him money as he did not have to pay bribes to cross the border. However, his fake ID did not fool the locals, who knew he was Haitian and would not let him join the Dominican union who coordinated this business in Pedernales. This meant that he could not wait for customers at designated motorbike stands, so he relied on a regular clientele (mostly of Haitians) that he had built up over time.

In the absence of banks, the interviewees used other formal and informal services to manage their money. The main formal financial products used by Haitians living in the border region tended to be the remittance services available on both sides of the border. Until 2011, there was no formal money transfer service in Anse-à-Pitres, so Haitians had to use the Western Union or Caribe Express offices in Pedernales. If they were receiving money from family living in Haiti, they would sometimes use informal service providers, such as the boats that carry goods, people, and money between Anse-à-Pitres and Marigot, located eighty kilometres away. Interestingly, even when more money transfer services became available, some people continued to use the slow boat service as it was free.

The interviews also provided insights into who sends money to whom and how they send it. These cross-island links became evident through looking at people's receipts. Physical records are useful because they provide a foolproof record of transaction details, such as the date and amount received. This can help interviewees give interviewers a better idea of interviewees' income and how it is affected by long-distance relationships.

Money circulates between Haitians and their family members or friends living in different parts of the island, on both sides of the border. The reasons why people send money are various, and the circulation occurs in multiple directions. For example, a woman called Fredelina received money regularly from her boyfriend in the east of the Dominican Republic. In another case, a Haitian woman living on the border sent money regularly to her children who were studying at university in Santo Domingo.

Applications

Poor people often have complex financial lives and they use a range of financial tools to manage difficulties such as shortage of funds, lack of access to infrastructure, and irregular income. However, just as Jofish Kaye and his team discovered in the first case study, people do not usually keep their accounts in one place.

This combination of diverse financial practices and dispersed recording of transactions presented a research problem as it makes data collection expensive. However, combining methods such as verbal and object-centred interviews can help to build an integrated picture of people's financial transactions, and the insights generated could assist with the design of larger research projects.

A problem with all research into poverty is that researchers can find it difficult to know what questions to ask since their lives often do not resemble those of the people they are studying. Researchers are often from wealthy countries or demographics, own multiple technological devices, are highly mobile, and have a greater degree of financial security than their interviewees. They are not necessarily familiar with the range of financial services that poor people use, and they may not be aware of other factors that impact the lives of poor and marginalized people, such as security concerns or the need use fake identification. Object-centred interviews can help reduce the gap between interviewer and interviewee because the things that people carry and use are a solid basis for asking questions.

Object-centred interviews have clear applications in policy work, socioeconomic development, and commerce. Making good policy requires good information, and object-centred interviews can be used in an exploratory way to shape research or to clarify issues arising from other data collection methods. Microfinance and other lending institutions can benefit from knowing more about their customers to reduce the risks involved in lending and extend loans to more people. Commercially, product design can clearly benefit from understanding how people incorporate objects into their everyday lives.

Ethics

The ethical and practical issues raised in this study are similar to those faced by Jofish Kaye and his team in Case Study 1. However, the fact that this research focused on poor and marginalised people raises further issues.

One research problem is whether to pay interviewees for their participation. Ideally, interviewees should be compensated for their time, but it does pose a number of problems.

  1. Research on personal issues such as finance and everyday life requires the building of relationships. This is difficult to achieve if residents view the researchers as providing employment or welfare. However, building personal relationships can be difficult regardless of whether money has changed hands since researchers often have very different backgrounds and levels of wealth compared with their interviewees.
  2. Paying participants means that those with the most need for cash may be more likely to participate in the study. This introduces a research bias towards one segment of the population, and it also raises questions about whether interviewees are participating voluntarily.

To mitigate these problems, participants were only paid for the portable kit study at the end of the research period. They received 100 pesos (around US$6) for each hour of the interview, an amount that is above the Dominican minimum wage. Most portable kit participants were people who had already contributed to the study, so paying them for the portable kit study was a way of compensating them overall. It also meant that most of the participants were people who participated willingly in the study because they were interested in the research.

Another ethical issue was how to provide people with sufficient opportunities to ask questions about the research. At the beginning and end of each interview, participants were asked if they had any questions or if there was anything else they would like to tell the researchers. Often they wanted to know more about what the research would be used for.

Although the researchers explained the study's aims and nature during the recruitment process and at the beginning of each interview, it was often not until after the interview had taken place that participants thought of questions to ask. This is a good illustration of how important it is to provide participants with opportunities to speak up during different phases of the research.

For more information on this study, see:

More about Object-Centred Interviews

Examples in consumer finance research