Easy is Hard: Building the Student Loan Picture


June 22, 2018

By Carly Franca, Director of Product Design, Fidelity Labs

When Fidelity Labs, the innovation arm of Fidelity Investments, decided to help borrowers gain a greater sense of control over their student loans, it became apparent that it was extremely hard for borrowers to obtain a clear picture of their total debt. The Fidelity Labs team used human-centered design techniques to distill the complexity of student loans and give borrowers the agency to take control of their financial futures.  

In 2014, Fidelity Labs began looking into the student debt crisis. We started where we always do—by listening to the people with the problem. For a few months, we met individuals from all walks of life whose lives were impacted by student loans. We learned everything we could about them to identify where Fidelity might be able to help.

After collecting data points, we found that the student debt crisis was affecting our customers and associates more than we originally thought. An estimated 44 million Americans struggle with student loan debt to the tune of $1.4 trillion; from our research, 79 percent said student loans impact their ability to save for retirement. We had identified a real problem, a big, abstract problem with many potential solutions.

We set out to test our first hypothesis: People with student debt are looking for help reducing their payments. We conducted surveys and usability tests on a variety of existing products and services.

Not only did we confirm significant demand for saving on student loan debt, but we also learned that:

  • People felt their student debt was holding them back in life
  • Refinancer acceptance rates were lower than expected and loan processing time was longer than expected.
  • Student debt aggregators help people who want to understand their loans or who are ineligible to refinance
  • People had very positive reactions to employer incentives tied to student loans

We decided our focus would be “helping people understand their debt” with the goal of empowering people to take control of their situation in exploring various repayment options.

We started testing our second hypothesis: Including information on federal repayment programs could serve a broader base of users than showing only refinancing options.

This coded prototype allowed people to input loans, see their loan data aggregated and then “Make a Plan” by answering questions. Based on those answers, the tool then offered repayment options that may suit them based on their situation.

Prototype of student loan tool by Fidelity Labs.

What we learned:

  • Users really liked seeing all their loans in one place, visualizations of their real numbers, learning how loans work and realizing that repayment options exist
  • The question tree structure was confusing; users had trouble assessing which repayment option was best for them, and didn’t trust a “plan” that didn’t align with their goals
  • National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) upload was clunky and sometimes inaccurate

After this round of testing, we knew that we were homing in on the right pieces: people were learning, but not enough to change their behavior. We hit the pause button on coding.

Our six-person team had competing ideas on how to solve the problem. So, we made it a battle. Team “Guess-Who” worked on a concept in which the user would choose people like themselves and see how they handled their debt to find the right path. Team “Concierge” was designed to be the Mechanical Turk and walk users through each of their possible options. After two days, team “Guess Who” found their idea was too thin, and we had consensus on “Concierge.”

A week later, we had our next prototype, a two-page PDF that displayed the user’s loans, total debt and how those numbers would change under different options.

This is where the particular numbers we were showing began to become very important. In the previous round of testing, we had heard people speak emotionally about three things: their monthly payment, their loan-payoff date and the lifetime cost of their loan. Each of those variables reacted differently when different repayment options were applied to them. In this prototype, we began to understand that what we were trying to do was allow users to compare what our tech lead, Joe, called “apples and karate.” In other words, two different options that affected numbers that were important to the user in different ways and had different tradeoffs and different results.

What we were trying to learn: Is there value in showing people their real numbers, modeled out in repayment scenarios?

Our big insight: Real numbers make a huge difference in the level of engagement people had with digging into each repayment option.

We found that we can actually crunch the numbers—we were able to obtain calculations for government and private repayment options. In addition, sitting down and talking with our team as a test was a big factor in engagement. This made us wonder whether the product would translate when it was fully automated.

Second prototype of student loan tool by Fidelity Labs.

With our results and data in hand, we started designing and building a product, the “Student Loan Assistant,” which would allow users to:

  • See and understand all their loans in one place
  • See calculations of various repayment scenarios based on their numbers
  • Compare the differences between scenarios
  • Decide to act, or not

Having reached this point, there were still outstanding questions and issues. We narrowed our focus on solving the problem of users needing to understand their current loan picture. We began by putting all the data points related to loans (payoff date, monthly payment by loan servicer, cost of interest) on a single page.


The key insight was that we needed to look at the bigger picture and tie these important data points together in a more meaningful and organized way. We went back and rooted ourselves in the numbers that mattered. How long will you have loans in your life? How much will they cost you overall? And, how much are they costing you monthly?

In the end, despite continuing travails, we got it to the point where users were pleased with the result.

Here is what we ended up launching with:

Launched version of Fidelity Labs student loan tool.

A couple of big changes we made here were:

  • Start with the thing users know—how much they pay per month; this lets them hang on to something familiar while seeing new information
  • Show age at payoff rather than amount of time until payoff; it’s easier to picture yourself at age 42 than it is to think of yourself in 10 years
  • Create a visual “equation” to show the succession of how the numbers impact each other
  • Give some narrative so people understand what these numbers are telling them

The first version served us well as we added more use cases. Every time we tested the evolving product, the Current Loan Picture was far and away the most valuable piece to users.

Most valuable page of Fidelity Labs student loan tool.

Now we had an even simpler version of the Loan Narrative that was very well received. “Wow, I’ve never seen this all in one place,” one user said. Users could finally see where they stood and what choices were available to them.

In August, we rolled out the Student Debt Tool to 9 million workplace plan participants. (These are the folks whose companies hire Fidelity to administer their 401(K) plans and other such benefits.) And the response has been equally amazing. We got 50,000 users in the first three weeks, and we keep receiving emails from people like this one:

"I used the Fidelity Labs Student Debt tool today, and I just wanted to write and thank you for simplifying a complicated process. I have been paying extra on my student loans, but couldn’t find a tool that could factor in all the varying interest rates, etc. Using this tool has alleviated the stress of not knowing the path I am on, and helping me to see that all these extra payments are going to pay off eventually."

We haven’t solved the student debt crisis, but we have given people the information they can use to take control of their loans and have a view of the light at the end of the tunnel.

Just because we launched a product doesn’t mean we stopped improving it. We already have new ideas we want to implement to make the experience even better—ways to pull in more information so that users can spend less time entering data, and tools to help people decide what debt to pay off first and what to do if they actually have a little cash left over at the end of the month.

People ask us why Fidelity is even building this product. Here’s what we said: “We can’t be in the business of helping people plan for the future without helping people figure out the present.”

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