Helping couples save up for shared trips.


The Project

Piggyback is a mobile application that employs principles of game design and behavior change to help cohabiting, millennial couples save up for shared trips by reducing their food expenses.

Project Details

  • Type: Graduate School Ideation Studio
  • Duration: 7 weeks
  • Teammates: Madison Zeller & Shelley Xia
  • SponsorEA/Popcap
  • Deliverables: interactive prototype showcasing core interactions

The Challenge

Can we help cohabiting, millennial couples save up for shared trips by encouraging them to discover and improve home cooking habits?

My Role

I led the concept development strategy and designed core interactions for our application. Some of my key contributions include:

Background Research

I conducted background research on game design, behavior change and relationship dynamics among US millennials. I also analyzed the results from a survey that collected additional information about the problems facing cohabiting couples.


I facilitated ideation activities such as Insight Sorting and Concept Matrices. I framed and reframed our problem statement, generated 51 concepts with the team and led the effort in evaluating them.

Interaction Design

I produced sketches and interaction flows that helped the team work through complex interactions of the mobile app, such as the goals/reward system.

Product Management

I led the effort in prioritizing features for the application. I created a Feature/Value Matrix, evaluation methodology and analyzed the results.

Our Approach

We followed a condensed user-centered design process beginning with research, followed by concept generation and finally refinement of a final concept through feedback and evaluation.



Introducing Piggyback

Onboard Together

We wanted to highlight the collaborative, joint-use aspect of our app in the very first interaction. The first user to sign up is prompted to invite their SO.

Set Joint Goals

Couples input the trip goal together so that Piggyback can calculate a savings plan and schedule. We didn’t want to make judgement calls about type or cost of trips, so we opted to let couples define that for themselves.

Take On Challenges

Where there is a goal, there is a challenge! Couples fill out a survey about their current eating and food-related habits so that Piggyback can provide relevant and impactful challenges.

Track Progress

Piggyback helps couples stay on track through reflection prompts and notifications.

The Journey

Uncovering Insights

We focused on understanding foundational theories, scoping our topic area and deeply thinking about problems we experience in our own lives. Our interests were piqued when we discovered the theory of co-motivation.

The three core insights below informed the concepts we generated and the final prototype: 

Co-motivation can facilitate behavior change

Interdependence between couples can reorient motivation from self-interest to what is best for the relationship as a whole. This transformation can lead to enhanced motivation for the couple to act cooperatively in adopting health-enhancing behavior change.

Self-efficacy is key and co-motivation can enhance it

To increase feelings of self-efficacy, behaviors need to be broken out into sequential steps, beginning easy and getting more difficult with time. Feedback and words of encouragement can help maintain motivation and progress. My team thought that the care couples have for one another could be an avenue for enhancing self-efficacy.

Game design elements must be incorporated thoughtfully

Strong systems incorporate many game elements; they don’t stop at points and badges. In fact, game elements, when applied in a cohesive, deliberate and interesting way, can be incredibly powerful at encouraging motivation.

Building Empathy

While primary research was not required for the assignment, we wanted to back up the assumptions we formed from our own experiences and background research. We designed a survey aimed at uncovering the obstacles couples face with spending quality time with their partners. We posted the survey on Facebook.

Our key finding was that a significant percentage of respondents desire to travel more with their partners but have a hard time executing because of money and planning struggles. At this point we knew we were on to something interesting.

Piggyback Survey Results
A summary of the survey results

Scoping it Down

Additional research uncovered that approximately 7.5M million unmarried couples live together in the U.S. and that number has grown considerably in the last half century. In other words, cohabitation is the new norm.  We also found that this group struggles with two problems: financial management and food expenses.

How might we motivate?

Once we knew the problem we were going to address, the next step was determining how to actually motivate couples to want to save on food expenses.

The survey results helped us decide that shared trips would be the incentive for saving up. We chatted about how useful this solution would be in our own lives. Travel with a significant other creates cherished experiences. It also fosters feelings of relatedness and pleasure, some of our fundamental psychological needs as human beings.

Learning from the Competition

A competitive analysis of applications currently targeting couples revealed a couple of important things:

  • Lack of variety: most applications designed for couples were related to either messaging or enhancing sexual activity.
  • Missed opportunities: there seemed to be no options aimed at facilitating fun ways for couples to grow together through co-motivation, at least not directly.

When we combined the findings above with the results from a popular media scan (revealing that interest in “relationship apps” had grown steadily over time), we realized that there was an opportunity for design intervention.


From this point forward we studied three competitors to better understand what successful implementation looks like for key areas: gamified behavior change (Fibit), financial management (Mint) and couple interaction (Couple).

From 0 to 51

We were still collecting survey responses and didn’t want to get behind schedule, so we brainstormed ideas across three problem areas: helping couples improve communication, quality time or division of labor. Rearranging them into 11 new themes revealed that our most compelling, viable and feasible ideas were related to quality time. This was later reinforced by the survey data.

Photos of ideation activities, with results from the Insight Sort layered on top.

Setting the Tone

Enjoyment, togetherness and adventure. The mood board below helped the team align on the experience qualities we wanted to shape through our design solution. These pillars informed our color, typography and iconography choices down the road.


Exploring Concepts

By week three we had 18 ideas that were selected through discussion and voting. We sketched thumbnails to ensure all team members understood what was meant by them.

Thumbnail sketches by Madison and myself.

Finding the Flow

Early sketches and subsequent feedback sessions surfaced several new questions:

  • By what mechanism will couples save up for trips?
  • What is a “trip”, anyway?
  • How does individual personality and preference influence couples dynamics, especially when it comes to travel decisions?

We also realized that our app risked appearing too similar to existing services like Mint if key aspects of the user experience were individual rather than between partners. Put simply, our solution aimed to help improve quality time for couples, but didn’t encourage enough in-person interaction.

We started to consider how we might reorient the the savings mechanism from an individual activity to a joint activity.

UI Sketches_Page_2
Some of my UI exploration sketches

Scrapping the Nonessential

This project lasted only seven weeks so scope management was critical. We simplified the application’s underlying goal and rewards structure by reducing the tiers from three to two. Scrapping the “quests” tier allowed us to focus our efforts on developing the most critical, core interactions of our app.


Mapping it Out

The first big refinement decision was to make the process of saving money a joint activity, thereby encouraging financial cooperation through shared activities for shared experiences. We discussed several ways that cohabiting couples could save money together, such as on food, entertainment and transportation. We headed in the direction supported by our research — food expenses.

InteractionFlow1-GameApp - Page 1 (1)
Piggyback interaction flow with wireframe mapping

Evaluating Features

We had an abundance of feature ideas and needed to prioritize the leading set. To do this, we used one of my favorite methods: the feature-value matrix. This helped us solidify which features were critical and which were nice-to-have so that we could focus our limited discussion time on the controversial and ambiguous ones.

An example of one team member’s completed matrix. Individual scores were averaged at the end.


Results and Future Directions

Several people said they needed an app like this. We saw many ways that Piggyback could grow beyond this project. Some of our ideas include:

  • Leveraging Mint data through an integration for more comprehensive financial tracking and personalized spending suggestions.
  • Partnering with travel companies to incentivize savings through bigger reward offerings.
  • Expanding into other savings areas like transportation and entertainment.
  • Adding depth and intrigue by incorporating mini-challenges (“quests”) into the system.

Prior to embarking on any of the above, however, it is essential to rigorously test the current prototype with potential users. Should this be a real application, user retention would be a key metric to monitor, as the app can only be successful if couples are actively completing challenges and realizing the benefits.

What I Learned

Trust the Process, But Know When To Break the rules

Determining what problem should be and can be solved is often harder than actually setting out to solve one. It took my team a while to discover our problem area and in hindsight it would have been helpful to begin primary research earlier in the process. Rather than validate our assumptions after the fact, we could have used it to inform our understanding of the problem earlier.

Iteration Produces Results

I remain convinced that iterative methodologies allow for more flexibility, refinement and attention to quality compared to linear processes. Despite being in the “ideation phase” of the project, we went back to do more research or jumped ahead in our prototyping to get feedback.

Ambiguity is Okay

This project was all about navigating ambiguity, managing shifting mindsets and relentlessly working to make an idea the best it can be under severe time constraints. Questions will continuously emerge during a project. It’s important to 1) not ignore these questions and 2) know which ones are worth spending time to answer.