Mobile phone applications, Apps, have become a common feature of day to day life. However, their application to social research is only beginning to be experimented with and understood. In this post Wasim Ahmed, discusses The Rainy Day Project, a research project that from the outset was designed to employ an app and considers the how the inclusion of app into the research design has allowed different audiences to engage with the underlying research in novel ways.
People often perform poorly when asked to predict their future expenses, which makes it hard, especially for those on tight budgets, to manage their finances. As a way of addressing this problem, we were interested in seeing whether people were more likely to save money if they were given information on the likelihood of financial risks occurring.
Previous research has found that we often ignore potential negative signals and have a tendency to focus only on positive signals. Moreover, we tend to underestimate the rate at which our expenses may rise in comparison to our income. Speaking generally, people can remember how much money they’ve spent in the past, but are worse at and often underestimate how much they will spend in the future.
We decided to further test these theories with another experiment, in which we asked participants to forecast future savings and expenses against a range of scenarios we had developed, which included unexpected events leading to additional expenses. More information on our experimental design can be accessed here. Amongst other things, an important finding was that by encouraging people to save by thinking in terms of ‘target savings’ instead of just ‘savings’, led to higher savings projections.
Whereas, our findings were interesting in themselves, rather than simply communicating this information in a broadcast fashion through traditional academic media, ie. social media, blogs, publication. Our plan from the outset, was to use these research results to develop an app, that could provide advice and information, and allow users to directly engage with the research in order to save money for potential ‘rainy days’, when it was really needed.
To do this, we used the results of our experiment to design an interactive app using the online platform Buildfire, we also enlisted the help of a Senior Research Assistant, who brought the relevant technical expertise to translate the app from idea to reality.
Figure 1 below contains our apps landing page (left) and a question from our interactive quiz (right).
Although we are new to using apps for research, we have found them to be a useful research dissemination tool. Firstly, there is a certain first mover advantage amongst academic audiences, who are interested in seeing how this technology can be used for social research.
It also has a broad appeal to the general public, who are unlikely to have been following the research project through traditional academic or social media, but can be made aware of the app. Apps also have the potential to reach a younger demographic (younger people are heaviest app users), who are harder to reach through traditional survey methods. As traditional means of data collection, such as questionnaires, come to feel more dated, apps may also provide a natural alternative, where participants are already engaged.
As opposed to written information, apps can also be more interactive and exciting, allowing users to have a deeper level of engagement with the research. For instance the Rainy Day app allows users to engage with the research via interactive quizzes, native video viewing, and third party plugins.
The app also provides instant online and offline access to our research findings, which are available 24/7 free of cost. This experience is optimised for mobile, providing a faster and more streamlined performance compared to viewing a website on a mobile device.
There are also methodological benefits to using mobile apps, which can collect real-time feedback and comments about a research project. These insights can be useful to develop new research ideas and as inputs into future research funding proposals. Real-time feedback could also be used for data collection and as a way to assess the robustness of the research methods, providing a means for opening up research processes and allowing greater participation from the public.
Ultimately the purpose of this app is to deliver positive social impacts and to help people feel more empowered in handling their personal finances. If an unexpected event occurs, for instance, the loss of a job and an individual doesn’t have sufficient savings then it can lead to life-changing consequences.
By launching our app we hope that we can empower individuals to forecast future expenses and set saving targets. As app-usage becomes more widespread and younger generations begin to get older, apps are likely to become an important method of communicating research findings, collecting data, and engaging with the general public. Apps also provide a novel way to put research into practice and could prove a useful tool for local authorities, civil society organizations, or private companies such as banks.
The Rainy Day project team is comprised of Professor Dilek Onkal, Dr. Shari De Baets and Dr. Wasim Ahmed. Our project was funded by the Think Forward Initiative. Our project is grateful to our Senior Research Assistant, Marc Bonne for support throughout the project.
Dr. Ahmed is happy to speak to academics who are interested in developing an app or a social media profile.
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Featured Image Credit, Craig Whitehead via Unsplash.