Deliver more value out of Plastiq for new & existing users.
Create a mobile app that takes the stress out of managing personal bills.
To comply with my non-disclosure agreement, I have omitted and obfuscated confidential information in this case study. All information in this case study is my own and does not reflect the views of Plastiq.
In simple terms, Plastiq allows consumers to use their credit cards where they weren't usually accepted. Think payments like rent, mortgage, vehicles, tuition, home renovations, the list goes on.
More specifically — Plastiq processes a credit card and then sends your recipient a physical check, ACH bank transfer, or wire transfer. If you're familiar with the standard credit card model, the merchant accepting the credit card would typically bear the cost of the transaction. Plastiq flipped that model and passed along these fees to the payer — letting anyone use their credit card to pay businesses that don’t accept them.
It started with a desire
We were coming off the runner's high from a successful redesign. All of the accompanying research propelled Plastiq with renewed clarity of our customer's needs. We asked ourselves "how can we deliver more value to our users?"
Among proposed ideas was a mobile Plastiq app. There was an important reason why Plastiq had not invested beyond mobile web. Our analytics were reinforced by user interviews — customers preferred to use Plastiq on their desktop.
At the time the average transaction was roughly $1,400.00 USD — users said "I use Plastiq for payments that are important, using my phone feels too risky." Research that has shown that the part of the brain associated with physical pain and feelings of disgust, is activated when paying bills. If you've ever written an important email from your phone — you quickly understand why people feel that way.
Not wanting to dismiss the idea entirely, could we create a compelling mobile experience? Remote check deposit had just reached nationwide availability — we asked one more question "could we do the same with bills?"
starting at square one
Knowing we didn’t have the engineering resources on staff to make this app a reality — we began to vet potential partners. After a handful of interviews, IDEO pitched a unique proposal.
The IDEO Digital Shop in Palo Alto took a special interest in the concept and problem space, pitching the project as a partnership. I would lead product design and IDEO would drive research, aid in deliverables, and develop the application.
With a limited budget, we had 10 weeks to research, design, and develop this application. Working backwards we would establish a 3 week timeline for research & design to deliver a wireframed application.
Back to the start
Pairing the Plastiq leadership, and IDEO Digital Shop alongside several industry experts. We had a kick-off session to refocus Plastiq's original prompt. With the outcome of creating framing questions to drive key decision making.
The first step in this new partnership was a kick-off meeting between Plastiq Leadership and member of the IDEO Digital Shop. This session started with the original question — "how can Plastiq provide more value to its users." The goal was to create framing questions that would guide key decisions throughout the project — we ended up with six.
How might we leverage native mobile capability to best optimize the Plastiq experience?
How might we inspire consumers with relevant use cases for paying with Plastiq?
How might we engage consumers who may not have immediate payments to make?
How might we empower existing Plastiq users to put more of life's important payments on Plastiq?
How might we make a splash in the market with a revolutionary, new payment experience?
How might we establish Plastiq as a payments company that is pushing the envelope of capability and user experience?
Will people use this?
To make sure the bill photo concept was as compelling as we thought it was, we created 3 sacrificial concepts for user interviews. For our purposes these concepts were simple wireframe experiences establishing keyframe interactions.
The first concept was "Bill Ben" an AI powered chatbot that would help manage bills. Our initial bill camera app was the second concept. And the third was a social based payments app that would leverage your location data to suggest local billers and other nearby users.
With concepts in hand we met with six individuals from IDEO's research pool. Everyone selected managed either their own finances or finances for their family. Some described themselves as "highly-automated payers" while others weren't comfortable using their phone to read an email.
It did not matter if you were in college, a few years away from retirement, or somewhere in between — there were universal themes that shaped how everyone thought about their personal finances.
My floor for trust when using my credit card falls on Visa — so long as I trust Visa, I'll give anyone my credit card. I'll just charge it back otherwise.
Wells Fargo had a remote check deposit experience that required the user to line up their check to a rectangle on screen. Once aligned, all 4 corners would highlight green and the app would "automatically" snap a photo. There was no option for the user to take the photo themselves. Every person interviewed mentioned it — every person despised it.
While that's an impressive market share — having tried their mobile check deposit, I can attest to the problems. The check recognition was finicky and the on-screen confirmation was difficult to activate. There was a delay between the photo capture and the confirmation, resulting in blurry photos. As a result, the user would almost always need to endure this experience at least twice.
"Bill Ben" chat AI was too advanced for its time — even interviewers that had been exposed to similar products were not confident that this tool would be able to handle the complexity and nuance of their payments.
The location-based experience was simply not solving enough of a need. If you're moving to a new place, it could be helpful — but for the majority of payers, there's little incentive to switch to a new platform. We would just be removing the frustrations of our own shortcomings — not solving a real need.
Bill Photo Capture was the front-runner for more than just the unique capture mechanism. It provided an easy way to clear the stack of bills that clutter kitchens and offices. It felt as thought we had a real winner, with one individual willing to change banks for this feature.
Trust was the backbone of every response — do I trust this isn't some fly by night scam? Do I trust that this technology is capable of completing this task? Would I even put my credit card information in here to begin with? Trust was essential, but their trust was malleable.
Trust could be inherited through external validation like acquisitions or partnerships. The more credit savvy users said that when using their credit card, the floor for trust was the card brand. They were confident that if anything went wrong, a chargeback was just a phone call away.
Whether making a six-figure angel investment or the monthly installment on furniture financing over the phone — we heard some version of, "I want to be the one to press the button." Though the act was more symbolic than necessary.
"Pressing the button" gave them the ability to cross this payment off their checklist. Some said the thought of paying a bill was far greater than the pain of actually paying it. Any experience that created a "set it and forget it" mentality was an instant win.
The pitch became obvious, take your cluttered stack of bills and put it in your pocket — Plastiq takes care of the rest. Using what we learned, we created an experience that was only possible with a native mobile app.
The bill photo capture was a compelling feature — but in practice it functions better as a retention tool rather than an acquisition tool. We began solving an actual need when we shifted focus to bill consolidation. This shift helped people see how Plastiq could fit into their own finances.
While the application encourages scheduling payments in advance — there are plenty of circumstances where people will wait to pay a bill. Working backwards from the delivery date, the app creates a series of notifications to encourage on-time payment delivery.
Within the app the next step for every payment is always available at a glance. It does not matter if the payment was submitted in the native app or in the web experience — users can easily access a timeline to the status of outstanding bills, scheduled payments, and completed payments.
We held the belief that given control, users are capable of taking a photo that can be properly scanned. Learning from the mistake of others, we gave users direct access to take the photo and control the lighting. With a review before upload, users were eliminating any issues before they hit our platform.
By redesigning how and when Plastiq requests information from users, I significantly reduced the barriers between registration and user's first payment.
Working with our risk team we created a series of escalating risk profiles. When these thresholds or triggers were met, the user would need to provide more info or complete additional verification.
Additionally new features like "Pay Again" were created that allowed users to make repeat payments in 2 taps. This feature alone created a group of mobile app evangelists that only interacted with Plastiq through this companion experience.
It was paramount to ensure the first bill uploaded was magic. As we all know, software isn't always magic. At the time of development, OCR tech was not advanced enough to work perfectly off the shelf. It would take at least three photos of a bill to train the model. Human intervention would sometimes be required to achieve the level of accuracy we desired.
This required the additional design and development of internal tooling. This tool would queue bills with missing data to be filled in and reviewed by humans. Using a priority based ranking system we could optimize for first time and time sensitive payments. This would ensure that users had an experience that was guaranteed to be accurate, fast, and magical.
New apps we love
The "Plastiq Bill Stack" app launched April 21, 2016. During development a few iOS App Store executives reached out with a simple request. "What portions of Apple's ecosystem make the most sense to integrate with Plastiq?"
I hastily mocked up an integration extending Plastiq functionality into Apple Pay. I might have snuck in my own “One More Thing” slide with Tim Cook presenting our application on stage at WWDC. Thankfully the team at Apple had a sense of humor — which is really all I'm allowed the share about our conversations.
But I can share — on launch day, the Plastiq Bill Stack App was on the Featured Page within "New Apps We Love" and was the Featured Hero Banner in the Finance Category.
The app was a success for Plastiq. We set out to create a unique experience that provided more value for our users. While the app was a modest acquisition tool, we had users that only used used the native app — to us that validated our initial question. We never intended this app to be a massive financial success. The app was a valuable tool to open doors with potential partners, investors and industry connections.
Two years after launch, Plastiq would sunset the app during a pivot from consumers to SMBs. In that time period 25 thousand individuals submitted over 64 thousand bills amounting to over $57 million in payment volume.
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