Preventing Elder Financial Abuse | BeSound, A UX Case Study
18 years of stolen income.
Permanent deprivation of property.
Social Security 100% depleted.
$450,000 lost in loans and cash advancements.
Emotional, mental, and legal intimidation.
This was the life of Juanita Deitz, mother of Jay Deitz. Jay was an early interviewee during my research for elder financial abuse. His honesty and courage inspired my decision-making through every stage of the process. (Read Jay and Juanita’s story here).
Financial exploitation is the fastest-growing form of elder abuse. Financial elder abuse is generally defined as the exploitation of financial trust from a vulnerable adult and can be committed by a number of people such as caretakers, bank employees, clergy members, family members, strangers, and more. Across every statistic, however, it is clear that the biggest offenders are those closest to the victims.
When it comes to reporting, the numbers are slim. Current research suggests that 1 in 9 seniors have been abused or exploited, while only 1 in 44 cases are ever reported.
The long-term effects of this abuse include: a decline in psychological health, physical health, and in extreme cases, death.
Our design team of four was tasked with the goal to create a web-based solution for preventing elder financial abuse. I was excited for the opportunity to work with a demographic that is often overlooked and underrepresented.
We were given 6 weeks to design our product.
For the initial research, ideation, persona and story-mapping, our team consisted of:
From that point, our team branched off to complete the project on our own.
My approach for this project was inspired by Design Thinking.
The process consisted of five main stages:
Identifying the Audience
Defining the User’s Needs and Goals
The Ideation Process
Architecting Content and Flow
High Fidelity Solution
1. IDENTIFYING THE AUDIENCE
Some of our initial assumptions surrounding the problem included:
In addition, there were unanswered questions that demanded our attention:
In order to gain deeper insight, we sought out a number of perspectives on the issue including: community members, abuse victims, the loved ones of vulnerable elders, and two specialists.
Survey and Street Interviews
We knew we needed to start talking to real people as fast as possible. We sent out surveys to local senior centers and family members. We also conducted in-person street interviews. Our first goal was to discover what people knew about the issue generally, and what people’s experiences were.
The data revealed that though many people have heard of financial abuse, most believed it was a result of phone and email scams. They were also unaware of what could be done to prevent the problem, or how to report suspicious activity.
The interview with Jay took us from scratching the surface to being fully-immersed in the problem. His story provided an invaluable look into the emotional context of financial abuse. This included the process of reporting, and the less-than-satisfying opportunities for legal support and resolution.
After speaking with Jay, our team had the privilege of interviewing two experts in the field: Debbie Booth, the Utah Adult Protective Services (APS) Information Specialist, and Kris Lahasky, the Utah APS Auditor. These interviews revealed even more data to consider in our solution:
Legislation differs from state-to-state
Only certain areas give specialized attention to financial abuse
The biggest risk factors for the elderly are: isolation (emotional and physical), the abuse of Power of Attorney, and generational beliefs that value trust above data
Most direct reports come from banks
The elderly are more likely to report scam exploitation than loved-one exploitation, though the latter is much more common
Most reporting comes from concerned family members and is often tied up in family feuds
These interviews confirmed and challenged some of our initial assumptions. In retrospect, however, I wish I had asked more about preventing isolation. In building out my designs, I struggled to understand the effect of socially-driven technologies on an elderly audience. That was a missed opportunity.
2. DEFINING THE USER’S NEEDS AND GOALS
Margaret represents the collective data from all of our interviews. When we were uncertain of the best course of action, we referred to Margaret’s goals and motivations to make the most informed decision possible.
Through more conversation and empathizing, the team was able to clarify the largest pain points for Margaret:
the overwhelming advancement of technology
her own perceived incompetency
the fear of being taken advantage of
The next step was to decide how to meet these goals within the scope of our project.
3. THE IDEATION PROCESS
After a few days of story mapping, we decided on a set of features that we believed to address Margaret’s biggest concerns:
Next, I identified a crucial point of interrogation:
How do we create an immediately familiar and easeful product for users who are already overwhelmed by a changing world — for users who are less likely to admit the need for emotional support?
Keeping this question in mind, it was time to move forward on the project independently.
I spent a great deal of time thinking about Juanita’s story. What was it about technology that might feel intimidating? What type of solution could possibly have saved her all of those years of abuse?
I decided to continue my population research and collect more data about designing for an elderly audience. This research highlighted vital technical considerations I carried with me as I continued to build my solution. The final design must:
4. ARCHITECTING CONTENT AND FLOW
My first approach to the problem involved a series of quick, low-fidelity paper wireframes for mobile. This gave me the opportunity to test my information architecture, navigation, and content structure. It was vital that target users could feel safe and easily access and understand the site’s features.
Which Way Do We Go?
Upon testing my sketched prototypes, it became clear that the I needed to find a way for users to move more easily through the content. Originally, every feature was embedded in a linear path. An ideal experience would require less cognitive load.
To better understand the journey, I mapped out my user flow. The visual flow helped me outline the difficulty and ease of accessing each feature and page.
Once I confirmed my architecture during design reviews, I moved forward on low-fidelity mockups in Sketch for tablet, followed by desktop. I chose to design tablet-first because most elderly users preferred the larger screen with easier-to-target buttons and interactions.
The desktop wireframe, however, illuminated potential pain points for the tablet design — namely, the navigation bar.
What was most intuitive to someone like Margaret?
Do older users even know how to use a hamburger menu?
Was it necessary on a desktop?
I took these questions into more usability tests, which revealed a preference for top navigation menus, as they are always visible.
Say It Like You Mean It…
The next step of the process involved writing the copy. Determining the best point of view, tone, and word choice for my target population was challenging. What would Juanita and Margaret want to hear?
I knew my tone needed to be personal, but how personal was too personal? I knew it needed to be warm and inviting, but not so much as to diminish the weight of what my user might be experiencing. I had to remember that the users were likely bearing a large emotional weight.
Through testing, I developed my language. I realized that the tone needed to reflect that of a casual conversation. This was most obvious in how I phrased the headers for content.
5. HIGH FIDELITY SOLUTION
Accessibility and Comfort
The earlier research I had done regarding elder accessibility — as well as previous interviews — helped me to clarify my design guidelines as I moved into my high-fidelity mockups.
After implementing the changes to copy, alignment, size, feedback, and hierarchy, I moved forward on creating a high-fidelity style guide.
I chose 3 styles of easy-to-read typography with warm, inviting colors like orange and soft green. Using this style guide and principles from material design I composed final solution.
Even still, there were accessibility choices to keep in mind.
For example, in order to maintain readable contrast, I had small iterations over cards and buttons:
High Fidelity Designs
Finally, I implemented small interactions in order to continue the feeling of conversation between my user and the software. I never wanted the user to feel confused or uncertain about where they were, and I used feedback principles to evoke that atmosphere. (To see Interaction Designs, visit my case study on Medium.)
In the end, I wish I’d invested more energy into interviewing and testing — earlier, more often — and conducting usability tests with my initial interviewees. This would have helped ensure my designs were continuing to meet the goals of my persona.
I also wish I’d spent more time narrowing my scope. The project became so big that the features I believed in the most — The Relationship Empowerment and Local Resources — almost felt buried.
What’s more, as I’ve learned more about visual design and accessibility, I see many opportunities to clean up my interface and improve upon my initial solutions. I aim to revisit this project to implement more research and new designs in the coming months.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to witness people like Juanita’s story and to contribute to their possible solutions.