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March 21, 2019
Empowering through design
By: Steve Farkas

Steve realised the true impact of the project he was working on whilst conducting user research with locals in Cambodia. The product, a money management app, positively impacts disadvantaged communities, as well as having the unintended benefit of keeping women safe. Steve knew the work would be a career highlight.


I've been working as a designer for 20 years, and at Fjord for four and half years, and the Money Tracker project for NGO Good Return is the highlight of my career.

It was moving, it was insightful, it created a level of motivation in the team to build something that would deliver true impact in a way other projects simply couldn’t.

Good Return works across Southeast Asia with financially disadvantaged communities and individuals to help them participate better in society through education. We were hired to design a money management app for unbanked individuals who owned micro-businesses, the majority of whom were women.


With the micro-business owners in Phnom Penh during our researchWith the micro-business owners in Phnom Penh during our research.


We went into these super poor communities in and around Phnom Penh to speak to the locals. That in itself was amazing.


“The time on the ground was emotional and moving. From a professional point of view, it was rewarding to be able to truly understand your client in their environment and design a product they are actually going to use. The design team really bonded over this. Corporate projects just don't make you feel that way.”


From a personal point of view, I learned a lot. I guess any travel to a part of a world where you’re working with communities and individuals who struggle to put food on the table, support their family, and have a really hard time just existing, makes you realise how privileged and lucky we are in the Western world.

It was the kind of experience that whenever we had to put in long hours, or things got a little bit difficult, it was nice to be able to reflect on the people that we were creating this solution for.

There were a number of moments when we were interviewing some of the locals who would use the app and they invited us into their homes. Those were some really special moments. Even in their hardship, they were so strong and happy in their family unit and as a community.

It seemed like second nature to them to support and care for not only their loved ones but their community, to a level that you just don’t experience here. That was a unique and special experience and something I brought back home to my own life.


Showing the mother and son the appShowing the mother and son the app.


It was funny because one of my goals last year was to be able to work on a project that delivered some sort of greater good. Then the opportunity to put together a team and lead this project came about. It’s like I willed it into existence.

There are many companies out there that pay lip service to championing social good, but to work for someone that actually delivers on that, by not just funding it but using our resources and designers, it really makes you value the company you work for so much more.


User testing with the micro-business ownersUser testing with the micro-business owners.


“Then you find out that one of the unintended consequences of your design helped keep women safe from domestic abuse. That was a real tearjerker moment.”


One of the trainers at Good Return informed us that while both men and women worked, men expected the women to manage their money. Whilst the men generally didn’t need to account for the money that they spent, they expected their partners to account for every cent. If not, there will be “trouble”.

That’s when we started to realise the true impact of this project.

The fact that this product is designed for the Cambodian market at the moment, but is likely to be scaled across a number of geographies like Laos, Nepal, Solomon Islands, and the Philippines, it really gives you hope in the power of the product, how it can transform lives, and have a positive influence on someone. We’ve only scratched the surface but you know when you’re on a once-in-a-lifetime career journey.


With the the rest of the teamWith the the rest of the team.

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