TechTalks: Lessons from the design of $100 CDC digital vouchers

12 Apr 2022

Straits Times, 12 Apr 2022, TechTalks: Lessons from the design of $100 CDC digital vouchers
The $100 Community Development Council (CDC) vouchers distributed to every Singaporean household to help them cope with inflation have gone digital for the first time.

My family and I redeemed them at our favourite duck rice stall at Bedok South last week.

To move her long queue of customers quickly, the stallholder peered into my phone and tapped the $2 and $5 vouchers on the screen, before asking me for a 50-cent cash top up to complete my $7.50 payment. I presented her with a $2 note and received $1.50 in coins.

What could have been a purely digital transaction also included the messiness of cash payment. If the vouchers are now digital, why must they still come in denominations of $2, $5, and $10 - 22 pieces in total to be precise? Should the stallholder not have been able to simply deduct $7.50 or $11.38?

There are good reasons to retain the vouchers in these denominations. By replicating the physical versions of these vouchers, the designers applied the time-honoured principle of skeuomorphism, where functions or objects in digital interfaces resemble their physical counterparts.

Consider digital clocks with analogue clock faces, or digital buttons and dials on mobile apps. Such mimicry makes digital interfaces more familiar to users and, to some extent, more intuitive.

In the same way, when you view the CDC vouchers on your phone, they are lined up in two neat rows from the smallest to largest denominations, much like how we would organise dollar notes in our wallet. This "stacked voucher" design reflects a keen appreciation for user preferences and payment practices in our local context.

Used vouchers are moved to the bottom of the screen, greyed out and marked with two red lines enclosing the word "redeemed". This ability to visualise how much "money" one has used and how much one has yet to spend can help users with planning and budgeting.

In contrast, an interface that simply indicates a voucher balance of, say $54.90, may not help the user to instinctively grasp how much credit is left to spend.

An FAQ on the CDC voucher website explains that the vouchers are in fixed denominations because "it is less confusing for residents, especially the digitally less savvy, and reduces the chance for errors to occur when residents key in the amount."

In fact, they may also help to ease later adopters into accepting more advanced modes of digital payment.

This consideration for the digitally less adept is laudable, especially since there are still some knowledge gaps here despite Singapore having digitalised a great deal since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another reason to retain the voucher denominations lies in the very genesis of these CDC vouchers.

When launched in June 2020, these vouchers were meant not only to help Singaporeans defray their living expenses, but also to support heartland merchants and hawkers whose businesses had been hit hard by the two-month circuit breaker that started in April that year.

By retaining the denominations, you nudge users towards spreading their spending across multiple vendors so that more businesses stand to benefit.

If the interface simply reflects a credit of $100 instead of being divided into $2, $5 and $10 tranches, users could possibly utilise all the credit at once.

As it stands, over 12,500 heartland hawkers and merchants participate in the scheme, with more than 90 per cent of them having registered at least one voucher transaction.

One design decision - to split $100 of digital money into small amounts - can offer many parties big benefits.

Thoughtful design can indeed make a world of difference. Many technological features have been fingered for unleashing negative effects.

"Infinite scroll" on social media apps encourages endless scrolling and contributes to device overuse. Phone notifications from news, social media and messaging apps give us a dopamine rush that fosters device dependency. "Likes" on social media posts may induce competitiveness and feelings of inadequacy, whereas "shares" can enable inflammatory and inaccurate posts to gain virality.

Similarly, in the brave new world of fintech, novel design tactics are emerging with potentially risky consequences. There are growing concerns about gamification in share trading apps that leads users to trivialise investment choices, or deceptive features in payment interfaces that trick users into making costly decisions.

And yet, the CDC voucher experience teaches us that we can design digital interfaces to steer users towards calibrated choices for broader social benefit.

Although the vouchers are still far from perfect, their digital transformation illuminates the vast possibilities in technological design.

Future iterations of such vouchers could also cater to shifting payment preferences and the needs and competencies of different age groups.

Each set of vouchers may only be $100, but the design lessons we can glean from them are priceless.

Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication and technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.