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 Innovative and robust research approach to inform behaviour change framework

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1. Problem

Tools delivered

Qualitative research

Journey mapping


Customer profiling

Value/Effort ranking

Although 80% of South Africans had a bank account, 50% of payments were conducted using cash. As part of a financial inclusion vision, the Reserve Bank 2025 vision set out the imperative for the private and public sectors to collaborate to reduce the reliance on cash, and encourage the use of digital payment methods to achieve more inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

An international merchant bank commissioned my behavioural economics consulting team to identify peoples’ mental models for using cards and cash to make payments and to use the insights to build a rigorous, research-supported, behavioural change framework for increasing bank card use as a payment instrument among South African consumers.

2. Approach


Define and Explore

After reviewing four potential research approaches to understanding the barriers to card payments and key contextual influences, I conducted and analysed in-depth interviews with a representative sample of 12 people, supplemented by informal observation in community settings. The interview discussion guide flow and analysis drew on a metaphor elicitation technique to uncover both the conscious and unconscious attitudes and needs of card and cash users.


Synthesising the data using associative mental model mapping, metaphorical and picture analysis, enabled me to identify archetypes (users) and key insights for each archetype. I uncovered three archetypal payment users or personas, their goals, patterns of usage, needs and attitudes towards card and cash for making payment.


Working with my associates, we tagged insights offering opportunities for behavioural intervention and developed a series of nudges into a behavioural change framework for increasing card payments.

Partner and associates in ABE consulting team, Goverment policy liaison officer (client), Research moderator and recruiter



International payments

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3. Results and Outcome

The project enabled the client to determine where to focus their attention to change behaviour, to improve the opportunity for impact saving significant strategic investment resources. 

The results redirected our client's attention to alternative digital solutions rather than card payment, ensuring investment in solutions was better placed and not wasted on impractical innovation for the low income context. Our research indicated cards may be too cumbersome and fraught with problems for lower income consumers: fraud, hard to keep track of, reliance on slow data transmission and cost of hardware.

Identifying a suitable research approach

People's habits of and preferences for using cash or card are highly personal, and fraught with feelings of guilt, hard effort and vulnerability. I presented four potential research approaches to the client for understanding the barriers to card payments and key contextual influences, but made one recommendation. Considering the confidential nature of this topic, along with the need to explore deep psychological barriers and drivers, I recommendation that the client conduct indepth interviews supported by physical observations in context.


We recruited 12 participants across a spread of demographics and behaviours, and gave them an assignment prior to the interviews where they had to gather pictures that represented their thoughts and feelings about the topic. The exercise is designed to deepen the participants' level of reflection regarding their own payment choices and feelings.  The pictures that they gather and bring along to the interview then form the basis of the indepth discussion.



The discussion for the indepth interviews was based on a metaphor elicitation technique, which was specifically chosen to fit naturally with how people think and express themselves. Enabling people to express themselves naturally helps the interviewer to uncover deeper insights, to use an analysis technique that can go beyond the shallow levels that are typically revealed in research discussions. 


The metaphor elicitation technique was first established in the socal sciences and anthropology. The technique is based on the understanding that the mind is associative and the metaphors we use to describe a topic reveal our mental associations around that topic. For example, we might say:

“Health insurance is like paying a cover charge at a bar, but paying for every drink as well.”

“Joy is popping out of your body like a champagne cork.”

Images are used to elicit the metaphors and mental associations since our thoughts arise in a context with associated images, colours, sounds. In other words, we are mostly visual in our thought and communication, using our senses to describe things and ideas. The interview guide was then designed to build on the pictures that participants brought in to the session, with three interview stages:

1. Picture analysis to probe metaphors related to the topic

2. Vignette to elicit the relationship between the actors

3. Sensory activity to futher uncover the nature of the relationship

Each interview stage builds on the previous layer, allowing for cross-check of the concepts and ideas raised and deepening the level of understanding and allows for convergent validity in analysis.

Because it is a specialised technique, one needs to have training and expertise for a valid and effective outcome. Both myself and the moderator of the indepth interviews had several years of training and experience in the technique across several different topics and industries.

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Mastercard detail

Synthesising the data to develop themes and identify archetypes

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Most of the research had been conducted in a mix of English and a vernacular language (isiZulu or isiSotho) and thus the interviews were transcribed to enable me to find useful verbatims and to synthesise the results. I'd observed each interview but needed the transcripts to code idivindual findings and cluster them into themes. I used affinity mapping to identify patterns in metaphorical language, sensory descriptions, deomgraphics and payment behaviour.




My analysis indicated that three core behavioural drivers act as an interactive framework for making decisions about payment for all consumers: Balance, Control and Connection. These themes operate at an unconscious level and precede conscious thoughts and feeling, highlighting the value of metaphoric technique for eliciting the themes. Synthesising the data from the interview phases, supported by convergent analysis, I was able to uncover three predominant archetypes or users which we named

  • "Cash is real" 

  • "Maintain Balance"; and

  • "Tool for the top"

The Cash is Real archetype was the strongest cash user. To this person, cash is a stronger reflection of wealth than card. Their income is low and they live in informal townships. Conceptually, cash is not just a measure of value, but also carries the ability to access goods and to build community relationships. This was reflected in a participant's quote “A lot of people like to feel the cash in their hands, look at it – it’s their money. They pay with it but still want to feel it, look at it and put it in their pockets. Paying with cash is normal. A lot of people do it.  A lot of people are scared of paying with a card.”

From the key insights gathered from each archetype, I worked with two members of my team to tag insights that offered opportunities for behavioural intervention away from cash. From these, we identified decision heuristics that could be used to influence their brhaviour towards cards. For example, social norms and proof could be used to nudge the community minded "cash is real" archetype into card or fast payments.

Recommending the best way forward was at odds with the original objective, but more reflective of the user context

While the insights, archetypes, behavioural drivers had enabled me to develop a rigorous, research supported behavioural change framework for increasing bank card usage as a payment instrument, I noted that cards were also fraught with user problems that may be too cumbersome for the current system to overcome. These included fraud, reliance on slow data transmission and the cost of hardware. After conferring with the partner of my consulting division, we suggested a fast payment system such as mobile payment services should be explored as a better solution to consumers enabling a service that is as "quick and trustworthy as cash".

We could have simply recommended the nudges for card payments, but in consultation with my consulting firm we agreed that we should note the stong physical obstacles that would have to be addressed, requiring billions in investment from government and the private sector. We hoped to redirect our client's attention to alternative solutions rather than card payment, ensuring investment in solutions was better placed and not wasted on impractical innovation for the low income context. 

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