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QuickPanel: All About The Benjamins

10/11/2013

The new $100 bill went into circulation Tuesday.  While Benjamin Franklin’s mug still stares out at us in mild rebuke (“You’re buying that?”), the bill introduces bells and whistles previously unseen in modern U.S. currency, such as color, raised printing, and embedded images that can be seen only by tilting.  USA Today gives us a look.

$100 bill thumbnail

The $100 bill is the most frequently counterfeited American banknote, so enhancing security was a major driver of the redesign.  Still, counterfeit bills account for less than 0.01 percent of all American currency in circulation.

We asked three UX experts to weigh in on this high-tech re-jiggering of an American icon.

Rosenfeld Media: Stodgy though U.S. money may be compared to the colorful bills of other nations, it is certainly distinctive.  Might abandoning the hallowed greenback damage the American brand?

Jason CranfordTeague: Abandon the greenback? Why not just abandon paper money altogether?

The difference between U.S. currency and British currency reminds me of the difference between a user experience created by developers versus one created by designers.

But if we are stuck with it, the appearance—at least for branding purposes—seems beside the point. Don’t get me wrong; I really like money with aspirational characters such writers, scientists, and philosophers à la the British pound.  It helps promote national pride and a sense of shared history, but that’s interesting about once (the first time you see it) and then becomes irrelevant. The difference between U.S. currency and British currency reminds me of the difference between a user experience created by developers versus one created by designers. U.S. bills are primarily concerned with functionality—aesthetics seemingly an afterthought. On the other hand, British bills are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. However, it may be the very utilitarian appearance  of U.S. currency that differentiates it from other world currencies and makes it feel more reliable.

Christian Crumlish:  Perhaps, although this makes me a bit sad, sort of like hinging American exceptionalism on the fact that we’ve successfully resisted the metrics system. There are some interesting accessibility drawbacks to the mighty uniform greenback. For one thing, a blind person cannot tell by touch if they are handing over a sawbuck or a Benjamin.

Christina Wodtke: Brian Collins once defined brand by telling a pirate story: the Jolly Roger is the brand promise that looting and pillaging fulfills. The reason the Jolly Roger is so powerful is because pirates who fly that flag come over on your boat and you are well and truly in trouble. That’s what made it so powerful when the Macintosh team flew it over their group that rivaled the Lisa. The moment someone flies that flag and then plays nicely, the game is over.

The greenback has always symbolized a stable and growing economy to the degree that countries switch to it when their economy is in trouble. I’d worry more about what is happening in Congress right now than what color our bills are. Because the day the greenback symbolizes ideology over stability, our brand will die worldwide.

I don’t think the challenges Yahoo faces has anything to do with their logo font, or who designed it, and I don’t think the U.S.’s brand will move one inch toward toward ruin because Ben gets a splash of color.

Rosenfeld Media: Most of the changes address audiences, such as counterfeiters and financial institutions, who aren’t consumers. How might these changes impact how consumers see U.S. currency–and the institution behind it?

Jason CranfordTeague: For usury users, the security features are obviously key to prevent counterfeiting. However, for most users (i.e., the public) what matters is how quickly they can tell the difference between the different denominations. The new bill addresses this somewhat by adding the tactile feel of raised printing. This should be of value to sight-impaired users especially, but the key differentiator of size was still not addressed. Most paper currencies will vary the size to make it easier to identify denominations at a glance. U.S. currency is still one- size-fits-all.

Money becomes invisible in some ways, except for its information content.

Christian Crumlish: I doubt the typical citizen is going to even notice such a change, especially those aimed at counterfeiters. Even when they went to those “large head” designs (which I love and find a bit, if I can admit this in the U.S.A., more European), it didn’t seem like most people paid them much mind. Money becomes invisible in some ways, except for its information content.

Christina Wodtke: Most people hate change of familiar objects they know and understand. The more radical, the more they refuse to accept it. If it also causes them to change their habits, they like it even less.

Take the dollar coin. It looks different, it feels different, and most importantly, it requires you to change your habits to carry and use it. People who don’t usually carry a coin purse must consider one, and when you reach for a dollar you must change where you reach and what you expect to grab. Dollar coin after dollar coin has failed, to the degree the U.S. treasury now stores $1 billion of  them.

The Benjamin has two key assets that will help it make a smoother transition: first, everyone wants a Benjamin and, second, not everyone has one. If you are rich enough to have easy access, you probably use credit cards. If you are poor, just holding one is special, and I don’t think you’re going to fuss much over a small color change. The security need is just the spoonful of sugar to make the change more palatable.

Rosenfeld Media: Are there any usability concerns with this new bill, or with U.S. currency in general (for example, the lack of a dollar coin)?

Jason CranfordTeague: I love dollar coins. They are easier to carry, easier to use in machines, easier to tip with, and last longer, meaning that they cost less to use. Most currencies now offer at least a single unit coin (pound, Euro, etc.) with some currencies having coins in denominations of 2 and 5 units.

From a usability standpoint, dollar coins seem like a no-brainer. The problem is that the designs seem to have fallen flat. The Susan B. Anthony coin in the late 1970s looked too much like a quarter, and cash registers didn’t have separate spaces for them. You might also argue that since this coin featured a prominent leader in the women’s rights movement there was some sexism involved.

Over the years, it’s become fait accompli that a dollar coin will never work and that US citizens will never accept them. Given recent failed attempts to bring in a dollar coin with US Presidents, I’m afraid this is something that will never happen for the US.

Christian Crumlish: I’ve long been a fan of, and believer in, the value of a dollar coin, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that three attempts have, for various reasons, failed to meet the needs of the U.S. public. (I’m also a big fan of getting rid of pennies.)

Like Third World countries who leaped over landlines to go straight to cell phones, we’ll probably never fix our money. We’ll just move to the next best thing.

Christina Wodtke: Our money is not the best. It’s confusing to blind people, who have to fold corners to keep track of the value. Even sighted people can easily hand over a five when they mean a twenty, and it makes it easy for con artists to excuse flimflammery as honest mistakes. It’s flimsy, and rips.

But it’s our money. We handle it every day. It reminds us of our hard efforts and promises rewards to come. Emotionally, change will be hard. The key problem is the U.S. government has never explained to its citizenry how they will benefit from the change. The points Jason makes are in terms of him, the end user; yet when the government talks about change, it is always how it benefits them in terms for fraud and efficiency.  If you want to make change happen, you must sell it and sell it hard.

I think we’ll go to all-plastic cards before we go to new money. I think we see that as more and more farmer’s markets have vendors who use Square.  Like Third World countries who leaped over landlines to go straight to cell phones, we’ll probably never fix our money. We’ll just move to the next best thing.

Like what our experts had to say? Guess what: you can have them bring their brains to you.  Jason CranfordTeague, Christian Crumlish, and Christina Wodtke are available for consulting and training through Rosenfeld Media.