Show Me the Money: Making Digital Tangible

Three years ago, I was asked a simple question by one of the Executive Directors at a leading UK Financial Services brand.

“How can we make digital, tangible?”  

I was asked this during a discussion around the forecasted shift from branch based transactions towards digital transactions. The concern was that the tangibility end customers were used to would be lost by the digitisation of everyday low-value transactions.

In my near two decades of Financial Services experience, I have seen how the concept of tangibility has been challenged by the pursuit, and adoption, of digital. In much the same way that vinyl is considered more tangible than a music download or that a road test beats a car simulator hands down, tangibility is something we humans love, even if we don’t realise it. How information is presented and felt matters to us and when it comes to money, it can really matter. 

Fuelled by technology, driven by the values of speed and convenience, with ink giving way to pixels, there is no doubt that the Financial Services sector is experiencing a disruptive shift to the virtual over the physical. It makes the question I was asked back in 2013 that more interesting and relevant.

By using some examples and a little light research for good measure, I hope this article kicks off some real discussion to frame an answer. One that is not only relevant today, but one that helps us question how we design today, for tomorrow.

Feeling the pennies

Let’s start this off with another simple question. Take a look at the following image (Fig 1.) and ask yourself, ‘What do these two payment ‘instruments’ (methods) have in common?’.

Fig 1. Purse v. Digital Wallet

The answer? More than you might think, probably.

Physical construction and monetary capacity aside, my view is that they both enable a common need, despite being a couple of thousand years apart in design. That is, to fundamentally provide the owner with the ability to hold, carry and transact.

Both can be topped up, both offer user initiated control, both are instantly accessible. They are also, virtually, physical attachments to our person, in our pocket or bag; it’s fair to say you’re unlikely to leave the house without one, or both. In terms of tangibility though, are there commonalties?


Fig 2. A definition of tangibility1

If we take the above definition of tangibility, the purse - and the cash it holds – we can safely take as being explicitly tangible. The user can literally feel the pennies, plus to some extent, access instant accounting; You have 10 pennies in your purse, you spend 1 penny at a checkout, you’re left with 9, simple!

In paying for items, you see and feel the transaction as it’s clear, definite and real.  As designers, this touches on much of our ethos as we seek to understand the connection of mechanisms and end users.

Whilst it is true that hard physical currency will continue for some time, underpinned by new investments such as the 12-sided £1 coin due out in the UK in 2017 for example, the future challenge is most definitely digital. With around 1 in 8 financial transactions in the UK now contactless2, Android Pay predicted to be the tipping point for mobile payments and the majority of vendors expecting payments to be digital by the end of 20163, digital payment processes are here to stay.

With a digital wallet like Apple Pay though, many will pause when asked of its tangible qualities as a payment instrument. Is it just a sterilised experience that anesthetises the analogue (feel good) qualities we enjoy with hard cash?

Core process

In terms of a core transaction process, a digital wallet and a purse are - at a high level - almost identical.  If we follow the flow in Fig 3., there is true parity of some description at each stage, bar the ‘Identify Amount’ stage in the digital wallet flow as no money is physically counted or ‘set’.

Fig 3. Simple step by step comparison of core transaction processes; regarding step 5 - receive is actual receipt of the goods

Looking at the wallet flow, we can drill down and start to draw out aspects of the process we might term as tangible.

For a start, the transmission device (the phone) is real, physical and offers a sighted, readable interface (its screen). It has to be presented against a receiving pay point at which point the user is required to touch the device to permit payment. If they’re paying attention, the user will also see a green tick appear to confirm the transaction. Most often, the receiving pay point will chirp back an aural confirmation too, accompanied by four small green lights. There is assuring playback at each key stage. 

The process may not involve passing across a coin or straightening out notes in the hand, but we can clearly state that the transaction is involved, perhaps even visceral. The touchpoints generate tangibility.

Either by accident or by design, the architects of the digital wallet process have created an interactive, physical process that requires purse like cognitive and motor skills to execute, as Fig 3. demonstrates. The clue really is in the term, digital wallet. This is also perhaps a perfect example of experience design at its best, hitting the sweet spot between business and user needs, delivering tangibility within a digital process.

A little research

Throwing the net a little wider and to validate some of my own personal thinking, I decided to gauge how the purse/ digital wallet examples might fare against other everyday payment methods when talking about tangibility. 

To help answer this, I carried out a simple piece of primary exploratory research. Armed with the definition of tangibility from Fig 2, I asked 24 people4 at random to plot 10 different payment methods/instruments5 against axis of ‘Tangibility of use’ and ‘Barriers to usage’. (Barriers to usage explained as covering: Sign-up, adoption, and technology required by user to enable/use).

Although not perfectly scientific, the end result makes interesting reading (Fig 4.).

*PayPal, Google Wallet, Amazon Payments etc.

Fig 4. Payment instruments plotted by respondents; ‘Tangibility of use v. Barriers to usage’.

After gathering the results and plotting the spread of markers, what is very clear from the group questioned is that the greater the perceived - or real – barriers to usage, the lower the determined tangibility of use. Perception matters to us greatly of course; how we perceive brands often drives our initial expectations of connected goods or services.


Looking at the distribution across the grid, we can draw out three clear verticals, that I will term as:

1.    ‘Old school’

2.    ‘Established electronic’

3.    ‘Emerging modes’

Within the ‘Old school’ vertical (Fig 5.) that groups Coinage, Paper Cash and Cheques together, we see a modestly tight grouping. These instruments are seen as very tangible and clearly perceived as offering minimal barriers to usage. Coins, Notes, we get. Despite the fact that a cheque is just one step on from a paper IOU, is it genuinely surprising it scores so high for tangibility? It’s real, you can feel it and assuming it doesn’t bounce, definite.

Recent debates on the relevance and future of cheques aside, all these three are easy to understand, access, hold, use and exchange.

Fig 5. ‘Old school’

Moving to the ‘Established electronic’ group (Fig 6.), we see a taller spread in terms of tangibility but a very narrow view on the barriers to usage. This group is evidently accepted as part ‘n’ parcel of everyday money management/transactions; standing orders and Direct Debits largely automated and ‘unseen’, with Chip & PIN undeniably common and quite tangible, perhaps from the interactions required to transact plus the paper receipts generated and handed to the payer. Again, they are easy to use, access and understand.

Fig 6. ‘Established electronic’

It perhaps most surprising that ‘Mobile Payments’ such as PayM and Zapp are not further to the left. With over 90 million mobile phones in the UK6 and around 100 billion SMS texts sent per year7 you might have thought this method would score differently. When prompted, most people suggested the barriers to signing-up were why they had placed it far right for barriers to use and low for tangibility. The demographic spread of respondents may be a cause for this, a younger audience may have given a different response.

For our last group, ‘Emerging modes’ (Fig 7.), we see a relatively looser yet clear grouping indicating higher barriers to usage and low to middling tangibility. Here it shows that Apple/Android Pay are thought of as offering as high barriers to usage as Mobile Payments, - but are considered to be relatively more tangible.

In relaxed discussion with the respondents it became clear that the linking of pre-existing accounts required to enable payments was the key barrier, but to those that had used it (1/3 of the respondents) or knew how it worked, it was felt they had control over the transaction and that digital wallet was an apt tag.   

Fig 7. ‘Emerging modes’


Linking this research and exploratory analysis back to the commonalities between the purse & digital wallet examples at the start of this article, we can also tease out that tangibility is nothing without control.

When discussing the concept of tangibility, the focus of many was more towards assurance than tangibility. Yet, when explained to them, it was clear that tangibility was inherently linked to assurance and that the reasons why they liked the idea of the payment instruments within ‘Emerging modes’ (especially the digital wallet service) was due to the playback the transactions give in each key step.

The physical movements to pay, the feedback, the visual cues, the notifications on screen to confirm purchases, all contributing to the feeling of tangibility. True ‘perception by touch’?

Back to the question

So, back to the question I was asked three years ago, “How can we make digital, tangible?”.  Based a combination of my experience and this research, I would structure my reply in three parts.

1.     The first part of my answer would be that the payment instrument landscape suggests a pattern, perhaps a subtext, that tangibility grows over time, with familiarisation and adoption. This hints at tangibility being an industry wide movement, so I’d support this part with something like Fig 8. to indicate the aspect of tangibility versus modernity; that is, the newer the (digital) instrument, the less tangible it is at any current point in time. This also shapes an emerging theory of ‘tangibility drag’.

Fig 8. ‘Tangibility v. modernity’. Tangibility drag.

2.    The second part of my answer would be that as we move from coins in our pocket to coins in the sky, it’s vital we remember to evaluate established mental models and their fit to any prospective experience. By understanding human behaviour through qualified and dedicated research, designers have the chance to design in a feeling of control and interaction to make the end user feel connected, ‘real’ and spark tangibility as its definition suggests.  We should ensure we always consider the end to end experience in order to a) maximise any physical touchpoints and b) ensure that the information presented via any interface provides meaningful playback. 

3.    The third part of my answer would be aimed at the enabling of user centred design within a wider business perspective.  In order to understand the priority users might give to tangibility, or to explicitly pursue it as a value, user centred design needs to be at the heart of development programmes to complement the investment in the enabling technology.

There’s no point building a Ferrari if no one can use it, or worse, not be able to learn how to.  This would allow the experience design process to influence emerging transaction processes with the values that have always mattered to ordinary people in their day to day use of money. In other words, developing the perception of tangibility by making sure that users can understand, access, physically hold (if possible), part of the transaction. Had Apple not adopted this approach, would Apple Pay have been so successful?

Designing for tomorrow

Depending on the reaction to such an answer, I’d also make the point that from a strategic design viewpoint, it’s vital that those pursuing a sustainable business model think about who will be using the things we design today, tomorrow. In the context of this article, who knows what human values the payment instrument industry will drive in say, five years’ time?  In many ways of course, it’s irrelevant. The key is that we give parity to user centred design alongside the investment in technology to both understand - and forecast - the behaviours and reactions of end-users to prospective developments.  

If I had a time machine, I would love to be able to go back to that moment in 2013 when I was asked the original question and respond as I have in this article. Until then, I hope this short piece has given you a perspective you may not have had before around the human values in some of today’s financial transaction methods. At the very least I hope it has triggered discussion.

Let’s continue the debate.


Charlie is speaking at Interact London on 18 & 19 October alongside Louis Rosenfeld, Pamela Pavliscak, Aline Baeck and more - Grab your ticket today >>>


UK Cards Association, via BBC Business News 21.05.2015
12 colleagues and 12 friends were chosen at random, aged 23-45, with varying experiences and financial knowledge.  
5 I did ask respondents to place 11 but it became clear that no one knew what CHAPS was. Either a case of weak comms or niche use, I removed it from the results

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