post by Bill Gardner
Changing your diet or increasing your daily exercise is hard. You have to do things that you may not care to do -- or you would be doing them already -- and do them in a disciplined, consistent way. Many people have grand hopes that mobile computing devices (mHealth) will help us track our behaviors, making it easier to change. I share those grand hopes.
So I was taken aback by some candid reflections by Marc Hedlund, the former CTO of Wesabe, a web-based software platform that sought to change personal financial behavior. His company competed with Mint.com, and lost. Here is Hedlund's view on why:
Mint focused on making the user do almost no work at all, by automatically editing and categorizing their data, reducing the number of fields in their signup form, and giving them immediate gratification as soon as they possibly could; we completely sucked at all of that. Instead, I prioritized trying to build tools that would eventually help people change their financial behavior for the better, which I believed required people to more closely work with and understand their data. My goals may have been (okay, were) noble, but in the end we didn't help the people I wanted to since the product failed. I was focused on trying to make the usability of editing data as easy and functional as it could be; Mint was focused on making it so you never had to do that at all. Their approach completely kicked our approach's ass... Between the worse data aggregation method and the much higher amount of work Wesabe made you do, it was far easier to have a good experience on Mint, and that good experience came far more quickly. Everything I've mentioned -- not being dependent on a single source provider, preserving users' privacy, helping users actually make positive change in their financial lives -- all of those things are great, rational reasons to pursue what we pursued. But none of them matter if the product is harder to use, since most people simply won't care enough or get enough benefit from long-term features if a shorter-term alternative is available.
Hedlund believes that neither company succeeded in changing personal financial behavior.
Mint totally won at the first (making users happy quickly), and we both totally failed at the second (actually helping people). No one, in my view, solved the financial problems of consumers. No one even got close. Yes, both products helped some people -- ours mostly through a supportive community and theirs mostly through giving people a rough picture of where their money has gone. But when we analyzed the benefits we saw for our users, and when Mint boasted about the benefits they saw for their users, the debt reduction and savings increase numbers directly matched the national averages. Because our products existed during a deep financial crisis, consumers everywhere cut back, saved more, and tried to reduce their debt. Neither product had any significant impact beyond what the overall economy led people to do anyways.
The lessons of Wesabe are that, first, an mHealth application must make data collection absolutely effortless. However, even when people have access to their personal data, effortlessly, getting them to use it for personal change is an unsolved problem.