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5% Cash-back on Prepaid Cards

Saving a revolutionary and potentially profitable project with a simple UX interface design and API update.

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This will not be a case study where I will show fantastic earth-shattering UX. Or even a "see-what-I-can-do" UI design showcase. Rather, I am presenting it simply because I am proud of what was accomplished and that accomplishment speaks to my character. It shows my reslove and tenacity to solve a problem when everyone else had given up and genuine determination to help an orginization of which I am apart of succeed. It also speaks to the courage to be that single voice who stands up and says yes in a room of no's. Then successfully defended and pursaded others to join a cause that saved a project from being scuttled. One that I knew could be very profitable and in the end it proved to be just that.  

This was my first UX role as a designer and it was with American Express Incentive Services (AEIS) (Later AEIS became InteliSpend, LLC, then was acquired by the Blackhawk Network in 2013). AEIS through all it's in

carnations specialized in prepaid incentive, loyality and rewards programs.

Their market differentiator was DirectSpend™, a patented technology capable of isolating spend on prepaid networks to specific merchants. It was the engine behind the company's successful reward and incentive programs that powered employee recognition to customer loyalty. It was perfect for those programs because it limited the use of prepaid cards to select merchants making the experience of their use much more meaningful. Meaningful in that the chosen merchants were usually high-end or highly desired.

Example listing of merchants on a DirectSpendTM program. Only these brands allowed spend for the cardholder on this program.
Example listing of merchants on a DirectSpendTM program. Only these brands allowed spend for the cardholder on this program.

DirectSpend was also great for the Merchants because it drove securely funded, ready-to-buy traffic to their brand. As such, top-shelf merchants were always eager to participate in AEIS programs. 

Many of these establishments had a percent cashback program or had clientele that used similar programs via network credit cards. At that time, cashback was becoming so widespread that it sparked a thought experiement which lead to an idea. Could gift cards be configured to offer cash-back? Such an offering speculated that merchants would see increased consumer traffic and that giving back at least 5% of transactions to the cardholder it would be profitable for all involved. 

It was just a matter of figuring out how to make it work technically and logistically. For now, however, the 5% Back, or the "Open Commission project," as it was officially known, had begun. Engineering and I had to find the how.

Connect App Wireframes

The Solution

We leaned on existing frameworks for other noncash-back programs in this design, which would have three components—a cardholder-facing piece to communicate where and how to use the card. Another that allowed the user to see and track their card balance. The third ran in the backend to support the first two that facilitated the DirectSpend™ filter and the new mechanisms needed to process 5% back for merchants and cardholders.

Cardholder Facing

The cardholder would need a place to find out what stores they could use their new 5% back card, including information and a general overview of how they could participate. They also needed a way to check their balance and track their spending, like standard account management/bank statement features. InteliSpend had a web property that performed just those functions. It was called My Prepaid Center (MPC).

Project Backend or setup


The admin piece of the current MPC, handled the connectivity of programs, cards, and merchants by filtering only those select merchants associated with that cardholders program. The logic that ran these filters became the same logic that would determine what stores were part of the 5% back program. However, an upgrade to manage ad placements for the new program was slated for MVP, and it meant a considerable design and build effort because this was brand new functionality. With AEIS being such a predominately sales organization, getting this part of the MVP right was paramount and in the spotlight. 

The bad news

It happened just as we had sat down and started iteration planning. We were told that the timeline had just been shortened, and senior staff wanted to know if we could have the program go live just before the start of the upcoming prepaid awards, shorting our runway by months to weeks. If that was not possible, then the program was dead. So, later that afternoon, engineering returned the actual estimate for all the work we had just wireframed for the ad management piece– we would not make the new deadline. Short of a miracle, that is.  

Until that moment, the team, the C-suite, and I had been so focused on building a complicated, over-designed idea that we overlooked the simple solution right before us. The new ad management piece provided the ability for sales to insert and sell ad space, which was very important to management. However, the same system also assigned a card program to a merchant, so the system knew from whom to take the 5% back on a transaction. However, it was a bloated and complicated schema, and it wasn't needed. So, I went to engineering to ask what the requirements were to associate transactions with a merchant post-sale, ensuring that the merchant got billed and the user got paid. The answer being what I had thought it would be. It was as simple as opening the switch on the filter to allow communication to flow in both directions. Instead of the API only verifying that a merchant was on the filter at POS, the connection can be configured to communicate the information needed to make the program work. The change cost was less than a 5pt story in one iteration. It also covered designing an interface that would facilitate a Program Manager to set up and run an Open Commission product. Dev would not be needed to grow the program, and the best part was I already had wireframes ready.  

As it started to sink in, I wanted to shout, "STOP THE PRESSES" (or start the presses). So did my boss. I don't remember even seeing her pick up the phone, let alone dial, but within seconds she was on with whomever a VP of Product needs to talk to about getting a dying project taken off life support.

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