Designing for a cashless society

Katja Forbes

Katja Forbes founded syfte, a specialist business in research and experience design in 2014, and is an Australian pioneer in the field of experience design. Katja is an International Director on the Interaction Design Association Board. She is proud to be a co-founding member and Local Leader in Sydney of the global community organisation, Interaction Design Association. Together with Joe Ortenzi, Katja has built a community of over 1700 designers in Sydney, providing them with learning opportunities via lecture based meetups that draw a crowd of 150 people each time, a mentoring program and workshops.

More movement has been made toward a cashless society recently, and already we are starting to see enormous implications across our society.  

However, in a move that was meant to create greater freedom for us, it seems to have also directly interfered with our right to choose.  

For generations, money has always been the currency for which we bartered. It makes sense to have something to exchange for service rendered or items purchased, and is a great motivator for people to maintain employment and for the wheels of society to keep turning.  

However, nowadays it isn’t just the Queen who doesn’t carry cash. There are many benefits to both the customer and the seller for cards to be accepted in the interaction. Not only can small change be fiddly, but we can only spend a finite amount (if we have $10 in our wallet we can only spend that, whereas a bank card allows expenditure of any amounts without it necessarily being physically present.)  

Credit cards, on the other hand, are much more likely to create over-spending, as their limits are higher and you can spend money you don’t even have.  

Over the past few years, currency itself and the way we shop has evolved with both positive and negative effects. Mobile paying systems completely reduce the requirement of having to manually insert or enter your credit card details each time. Yet unlike when we spend cash, our spending patterns can be observed at a later time.  

On the one hand, it is handy for us to understand where our money went during the past month each time read our statement, but it is also important to realise this information can be accessed by any number of people. Your partner can view your statement to find out where you have been spending all your money each month, but the reality extends past your family members.  

If you want to apply for a home loan, lenders are currently clamping down and getting a loan can be very challenging. Your bank statements will be viewed by the lender, and in this case, if you are spending a lot on electronics, gadgets or make-up, this will not look favourable on your application. Cash withdrawals from ATMs in pubs with poker machines could be viewed as gambling behaviour.  

Aside from that, consider that banks and stores are accessing your spending data (not your credit card details – these are secure) but it can certainly feel upsetting. For this reason, your identity will be reduced to statistics, but nobody likes to feel Big Brother is watching.  

Just as a cashless society has moulded our spending behaviour, so too has it directly affected homeless people. Along with street artists and buskers, homeless people are helped by the generosity of those who pass by. Once you had handed them a coin, you may immediately wonder if they will use that money for something to eat, or booze and cigarettes. You never know for sure, but you have empowered that person by giving them the right to choose – something we all are provided with as human beings.   

Now, however, the currency they ‘accept’ is used less and less. More often, we are leaving home with little or no cash in our wallet, and make transactions with our cards or mobile. Therefore, there is nothing to give to the homeless.  

With this problem in mind, someone clever has invented an app we can use to donate money to the homeless. It has functionality allowing it to identify the person we would like to donate to by scanning a QR code they display, and instead of collecting the cash and giving it to each of them accordingly, the donations are sent to a local ‘hub’. The recipient needs to access this hub, where he/she will be met by an adviser, and the homeless person can discuss their ideas for the future, and collect his/her money. The Greater Change app is now being tested in the UK city of Oxford.  

While the inventor of this app obviously has good intentions, it is so easy to see how this cashless society has caused our freedom to choose to be eroded and Big Brother’s influence is growing. There is no doubt the App was created to offer a greater future for the homeless. But the very means they have used has also inadvertently removed their freedom of choice, and as such, risks making them feel like children asking for permission to receive the money they have been kindly given and needing to discuss their future intentions before they can spend it.  

Add to that the dubious action of scanning a human like they’re an object and the discomfort becomes greater. But does the ends of getting money to that person in some way justify the means?  

A cashless society certainly has worthwhile benefits. But as designers, we need to consider ways we can allow consumers the benefits of not having to constantly draw cash out the ATM, yet not penalise those who don’t participate in the banking system due to social exclusion or disadvantage. Our design decisions always have unintended consequences. What’s convenient for some can be devastating for others.  

Tags: design thinking, customer experience managament

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