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Financial Literacy for Graduate Students with Loan/Debt

User research project to explore what financial information are graduate students looking for, utilizing interviews as the main research method.

The goal of this user research project was to understand the ways graduate students manage their finances and seek finance-related information and advice.  We as a team of six ,conducted four in-depth interviews with students having varying experiences with Loans and credit cards(revolving debt) to fathom their current financial literacy and recognize barriers that limit them from successfully managing finances on their own. 
Research Duration
October 2022 - December 2020
(3 months - In a team of 6)
My role
UX researcher
Dr. Wayne Phoel
Visiting Research Engineer at ISR (Institute for Systems Research)
Research study plan
Affinity mapping
Experience model
Product concept
What aspect of loans/debt most concerns graduate students, and where do they seek reliable information and advice?
of U.S. households face strains on income, expenditures and wealth
Nearly half
Spent as much as or more than they earned
- The Precarious State of Family Balance Sheets by the PEW Charitable Trusts (2015)
180 Million
Americans are considered financially unhealthy
- U.S. Financial Health Pulse 2018 Baseline Survey
Our client, Dr. Phoel has been providing leadership in evaluating and executing financial technology research and experimentation. He is now working on an idea to utilize machine learning to tailor behavioral nudges to help people make better financial decisions. After analyzing the existing market survey, he figured that these surveys need to be more thorough through research and identification of “beachhead”. 

Starting with the very initial population that gets to deal with finances for the first time on their own, the focus is on finding out the financial literacy among graduate students. Financial Literacy empowers young people to make well-informed decisions about
money and work. It helps open the doors to financial opportunity, broadening your financial choices and strengthening your long-term financial future. As students transition from university to the professional world, It is important to be able to budget and save
money for future investments like homes and cars. However, graduate students currently have a difficult time navigating large financial commitments like loans and debt and struggle to identify accurate and credible information. And therefore, for our project, our client posed the following question:
" What kind of financial information are graduating students having loan/debt looking for? "
Contextual design framework
  • One-to-one Interviews 
  • Interpretation sessions
  • Affinity diagram
  • Experience models 
  • Wall walk
  • Visioning
  • Product concept
  • Wireframing
  • Prototyping
How can we help current or recent graduate students budget their income in order to best allocate funds for their loan/debt repayments?
How can we help current or recent graduate students budget their income in order to best allocate funds for their loan/debt repayments?
Narrowing down the problem statement to form the focus research questions
To investigate our problem statement, we narrowed down our research questions to the following focus research questions. Our goal was to identify the various information needs graduate students have and recognize barriers that limit them from successfully managing finances on their own. 
What financial service/assistance is most valuable or important to students who have?
What aspects of loan/debt repayment elicits negative emotion?
Defining target audience and recruiting participants for interview
For the purpose of this study, we chose to understand the financial literacy of recent graduates, current graduate students, and doctoral students from diverse backgrounds. Our goal was to learn about students who are newly transitioning into different levels of financial responsibility, concentrating on their pain points, and where they seek reliable information from. Therefore, this study focuses on graduate students who have loans(education and home) and debts (credit cards and other leases) for the first time.
Target Audience
Students/Alumni dealing with Loans/Debt for the first time and have a current stream of income.
For participant recruitment, we employed a maximum variance sample strategy in order to maximize the diversity of our participants.

Every selected participant had to say yes to all four of our
screening questions

1. Do you currently have a loan/debt under your name?

2. Is this your first time experiencing a loan/debt?

3. Have you had your loan recently (up to two years)? / Have you started using your credit card recently (up to 1 year) ?

4. Do you currently have a recurring income stream?

Participants' demographics and Interview Plan
Following are the demographics of the participants we recruited 
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We interviewed in total 4 participants in a pair of one interviewer and one recorder. Each interview lasted about 45 minutes. find the detailed interview questions below.
Analyzing the key findings from the interviews by synthesizing Affinity Diagram
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Key Insights
I need ways in which I can interact with reliable people to get the right financial information about my loans and debt
I want a system to assist me in keeping track of my loan/debt
Provide me with a road map that informs me about important loan/debt decisions I will need to make.
I need alternative resources that aren't just banks to teach me about my loan/debt.
I want a system to gain information from the banks in a clear and transparent way
Give me an easy way to understand and get adjusted to the US financial system
I require a convenient and secure method of managing my finances through technology.
Synthesizing Relationship model to better represent Interview data and insights 
We chose to build a relationship model based on our research data as our findings suggested that most financial decisions made by our participants are influenced by external factors. 

We represent the relationship of different entities with our participants for seeking financial information in three different levels.
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Creating Personas to understand target users better
We created user personas to help us understand who the users are and gain a deeper understanding of their behavior and needs.
Organizing wall walk to get feedback and ideas
Wall walk helped our team in getting other people to interact with the synthesized data and brainstorm design ideas from different perspectives. It also helped us to find gaps in our research and find opportunities to improve.
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Exploring possible design directions based on wall walk
Based on the feedback and ideas we got from the wall walk session we tried to come up with possible design directions. Additionally, our discussions while creating the affinity diagram and experience models also pointed us toward some design directions that can be explored further.
How might we?
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Finalizing one product concept and going ahead with wireframes
Based on our relationship model, we found that the users are already reaching out to their families and close friends for advice, so we wanted to leverage the familiarity and trust they have for people around them to create similar relationships between the users and financial advisors. Just like students do one-on-one discussions with academic advisors before class registration, we thought of building a service where students can consult professionals whenever they’re making important decisions regarding their finances. We also notice that online platforms, albeit in the outermost circle of the relationship model and have some credibility issues, are still important information sources for users. Therefore, we merge the two design concepts and create a tailor-made platform for UMD students.
We are building a service where students can
consult finance professionals whenever they’re
making important financial decisions -- Just like how we do with academic advisors for class
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At the beginning, users will go through an onboarding process, where they have to log in with their UMD Student account to continue. This way, we guarantee that the users on our platform and people who have access to our financial advice service are all UMD students. This strengthens the credibility and trustworthiness of the platform overall.
As they continue the onboarding process, they will be asked a few questions regarding their current
financial situation. We’re not collecting detailed information for we don’t intend to do an accurate
recommendation algorithm. Besides, we encourage users to have actual conversations with professional
financial advisors.
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After they log in, users will be able to see a dashboard,
where they can find their personal settings, their appointment with advisors, the documents they’ve shared before, and their previous posts in the
The forum allows users to ask questions, and while both
students and advisors can view and answer questions, only advisors’ answers will be marked with labels. This helps users to identify the sources of information and provide a certain degree of credibility.
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Searching for Advisor
In the “Advisors” section, users can search with keywords or use filters to find the advisor they’re interested in. By clicking the avatar, they’ll be directed to the advisor’s profile. This is the place of a more detailed introduction about the advisor. And if a user finds the advisor might be helpful, they can book an appointment for a video call or just chat.
Appointment and Message
Finally, in the “Message” section, users can find a list of contacts they’ve talked with, by clicking on the advisor’s name, they can start messaging the advisor.
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Visioning session with team to ideate possible product concepts
Visioning was an extremely important stage to encourage everyone to go wild with their creativity and envision as many as possible product concepts.
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What could be the next steps?
Develop functional
prototype with higher fidelity
Conduct usability
Adapt and reiterate our
What did we learn?
Working on this final project had been a great experience and an immense growth curve. This project helped us combine all learnings throughout the semester and understand where each of the concepts and components fit in to complete the bigger picture.

Through this project, we got to practice analyzing qualitative datasets and effectively communicating key insights. Additionally, as researchers, we learned how to identify our own biases and assumptions and make sure we don’t let them interfere with the user research process. We collected feedback from our cohort and faculty in the final wall walk and made adjustments to the design. We look forward to taking our project further by creating a user-clickable prototype with higher fidelity. This should allow us to conduct usability tests with our target audience and build a new phase in our research on the level of a solution. We are excited to test out our future iterations and continue to add to our research goal.
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