Usability Testing the “First Experience” of YNAB’s Mobile App


Timeframe: January–February 2018
Company: You Need A Budget
Role: Recruiting, research, synthesis

In early 2018 I applied for a position at You Need A Budget (YNAB). This project was a voluntary effort on my part in order to demonstrate my skills and show my enthusiasm for the role.

Over the course of 2 weeks, I conducted a 4-person usability study focused on identifying areas of friction encountered by newly-minted “YNABers” in their first experience with the mobile app.


YNAB is all about putting the “personal” back in personal finance. They want to make budgeting approachable, personalized, and liberating.

I had learned from previous interactions with the company that customer conversion – getting people to sign up after their 30-day trial – was a particular focus for them. This is implied in their stated focus for 2018.

“In 2018, we’ll focus intensely on making YNAB effortless and helping new budgeters get started effectively, from their very first experience.” (YNAB job ad)

Customer conversion is influenced by many factors, however, one of the biggest determiners of conversion is friction.

When a task is hard to accomplish or takes an unexpectedly long time, this causes friction. It prompts questions like, “Will it always be this hard or take this long?” Friction feeds our natural risk aversion and gradually leads us to devalue the product or service in question.

This is especially true for new users. They are essentially “on the fence” and even the slightest amount of friction may cause them to abandon.


The study simulated a situation where the customer’s very first exposure to YNAB is via the mobile app. I primarily focused on their experience from signing up through creating their first budget.

The study followed a pretty standard usability test format—moderated, largely task-based, and, in this case, conducted in person.

Here are the high-level steps I took:

  1. Establish why the study should be done
  2. Decide how to do the study
  3. Recruit participants
  4. Decide exactly what to test
  5. Do a dry run
  6. Execute the sessions
  7. Capture the data
  8. Analyze the data
  9. Synthesize the data and produce findings
  10. Provide specific recommendations
I use mind-mapping and other diagramming methods to help me think about a problem from different angles and to reveal connections between ideas.


I came away with 5 major findings. These were things I observed across all four sessions and that formed a clear pattern.

  1. They wanted it to be their budget
  2. They struggled with setting up an account
  3. They dismissed the chat-style onboarding message without reading it
  4. They struggled when dealing with income
  5. They remained unconvinced that their budget would help them achieve their dreams

Finally, I came up with 8 specific recommendations for how to address these issues and increase conversion.

This study also reminded me of the important lesson that other people aren’t like me. They think differently than I do. They do things differently than I would. They will choose whether to budget or not for their own reasons, not mine. And that’s the whole point! It’s called personal finance, after all.

It’s their choice. It’s their money. It’s their life.

There are things I want for people, but at the end of the day, they have to want those things for themselves. And I think their first experience with YNAB could very well be the inaugural step toward figuring out what they really want, and then making it happen.