It might seem far-fetched, but in recent years a couple of financial companies have started hiring from the gaming industry in an attempt to make their products more appealing to consumers.
Let’s face it, most of us find pensions, savings and investments dull and confusing. Could more engaging money management apps, or elements of ‘gamification’ help to overcome these difficulties?
The theory is that if people take more interest in their finances, they’ll be encouraged to save more. So perhaps an app where users have to make a million from a fantasy portfolio could help plug the savings gap. Like Pokémon, this could marry real-world data – up-to-date share prices, for example – with a virtual pot of money.
You might think that a financial app is unlikely to be particularly addictive or fun. But let’s not forget that millions of people have downloaded games where they match sweets or keep an eye on a virtual farm.
There are other ways that smart technology could help nudge us into making better financial decisions. One problem the savings industry faces is ‘delayed gratification’. In other words, we don’t get any immediate benefit from squirrelling away our hard-earned cash away.
It’s true there are bigger rewards further down the line: the chance to dine on foie gras rather than tinned spam in retirement, for example. But most of us struggle to prioritise these longer-term benefits over more immediate demands on our money.
The pension and savings industry could learn a trick from those promoting exercise and keep fit applications (another area where good intentions don’t always match day-to-day realities).
Walk 10,000 steps each day and your phone or fitness monitor will buzz to let you know how well you’ve done. This might seem like a pretty feeble ‘reward’. But I bet I’m not the only one who has trotted up and down the stairs three times late at night as I’ve neared my daily goal.
We all have a Pavlovian response to praise, even if it’s delivered by a non-sentient email account.
Why don’t savings and investment companies ask about goals and send a well done ‘bing-bong’ to your phone or computer each time you exceed your target? It’s certainly more encouraging than the annual indecipherable statement sent through the post.
I’d like to see even more tangible rewards. It’s a damning indictment of the financial industry that coffee shops seem to have a better grasp of what makes their customers tick.
I have a loyalty card from Costa, which gives me a free latte after I’ve bought 15 cups of coffee. But regardless of whether I put £100 or £1,000 a year into my pension I don’t get any equivalent ‘loyalty bonus’.
Financial companies could also tap into our inherent competitive nature. Many fitness apps, for example, show you how far, and how fast, other users in the area have run each week.
Is it possible to plot your savings against the average amount saved for someone your age, or someone living in your area? How about climbing a leader board where the ultimate goal is being able to pack in work a few years earlier? This may encourage some people to save more, although for some it could have the opposite effect.
Of course, demystifying finances means customers may feel empowered to make their own decisions and to ask more pertinent questions, such as what exactly are these fees and do they represent value for money?
Perhaps that’s why so many investment companies have been slow to adopt this new technology. Rather than launching the financial equivalent of Pokémon they could leave their customers like Angry Birds.
Emma Simon is a freelance consumer journalist and former Personal Finance Editor at The Sunday Telegraph