VOX DEI: The Criticality of Consumers’ Voices in the Development of CBDC

By Kwame Agyapong Oppong,
Head, FinTech, and Innovation,
and Docia Agyemang Boakye,
Innovation Officer, Bank of Ghana

This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of the Central Bank Payments News. Request Your free 3-months trial HERE.

“When we shift from I-centric to WE-centric thinking, we enhance our partnership in co-creating the future.”

— Judith E. Glaser

“…good design must primarily serve people.”

— Thomas J. Watson

“User-centered design means working with your users all throughout the project.”

— Donald A. Norman

The principles that underpin the concept of customer centricity have long guided many commercial enterprises into commercial success. In this modern, data-driven market environment, the idea of putting customers at the center of everything we do is intuitive and should be self-evident.
While it may seem that this concept only applies in the uber-competitive commercial business space, central bank digital currency (CBDC) is expected to thrust central banks and monetary authorities into a full application of this concept in order to ensure a successful adoption of this new form of currency. For all the noble, rational, or perhaps lofty policy goals that we seek to achieve with CBDC, the customer will be the ultimate arbiter. It thus stands to reason that central
banks must make the potentially uncomfortable mental, orientational, or operational shifts necessary to put this reality at the center of the whole effort.

CBDCs are digital representations of cash, considered as legal tender, a store of value, the liability of a central bank, and recognized as a new development of central bank money in conjunction with cash (Bank for International Settlements,2020; Bank of Ghana, 2022; Bank of Jamaica, 2020). They have been deployed and launched by countries such as Nigeria — eNaira (Central Bank of Nigeria, 2023; eNaira, 2023), The Bahamas — Sand Dollar (Sand Dollar, 2023), and Jamaica —JAM-DEX (Bank of Jamaica, 2022). Other countries, such as Ghana, have completed a pilot phase while others such as the United Kingdom, Turkey, Singapore, and Namibia are at different stages of research and proof of concept (CBDC Tracker, 2023).

The uptake and acceptance of a country’s CBDC by its populace will largely depend on the considerations and actions taken towards its development and deployment.

There can be some potential challenges with the adoption of a CBDC that stems from physiological, social, economic, and demographic factors. These can be further discussed in several dimensions including education, trust, gender, perceived value, and risk.

Two inimical factors to the advancement of a CBDC are a negative outlook from a country’s citizens and slow consumer uptake once a CBDC implementation is effectuated.

The emerging consensus that consumer acceptance is a critical success factor in a CBDC deployment compels countries at all stages of CBDC development to align their designs closely with consumer needs and expectations. These insights can only be established from an effective consumer understanding study that elucidates the aims, pains, and gains of consumers’ currency usage and digital payment experiences. Equally important, emphasis needs to be laid on the fact that while CBDC is currency, it is experientially indistinguishable from other digital payment user experiences (UX). Therefore, issues such as customer journey, customer experience, and user interfaces need to be taken into account to ensure an optimal product-user fit. Such a consumer-centered approach can effectively guide central banks away from embarking on an organizational-centric deployment approach, to which they may be susceptible.

A global scan of CBDC explorations reveals the myriad implementation strategies adopted by each country, often in response to its local context. Amidst the ensuing debates about different elements of CBDC design, the jury is in on the need to pursue a human-centered approach that inures to the benefit of consumers and society as a whole. However, deconstructing the underlying attributes that influence consumer adoption of CBDC will reveal several internal and
external factors.

Some of these factors include:

Trust and Safety

A positive adoption of a CBDC will be influenced by the end users’ need for protection against theft and fraud (Bijlsma et al, 2021). A successful deployment will therefore have to incorporate features and interventions along the customer journey that engender a sense of trust and safety.

In further disaggregating trust as a determinant of adoption, trust in the central bank or monetary authority, commercial banks, and financial service providers and trust in redress mechanisms and infrastructure must be examined individually. Where end-users are skeptical and mistrust the financial system and financial service providers, there will be little to no motivation to accept a CBDC provided by the same system. Public trust in a central bank and the financial
system, as well as transparency on the part of the central bank with public projects and policies, is critical for the enduser’s financial decision making (Schnabel, 2020; Tronnier and Kakkar, 2021).

Cyber Resilience

Another key consideration is the protection of consumers from unscrupulous cybercriminals. To ensure trust and confidence, central banks have to take a critical look at the cyber resilience of their entire CBDC deployment, from back-end operations to front-end systems that may be operated by technology
providers and financial service providers.

Governance

However, regardless of the design of a country’s CBDC, various controls and processes must be implemented to protect consumers as well as the integrity of the central bank. These include a robust governance structure, integrity of the system with regards to the correct creation and transfer of funds, verification processes, controls for prevention of double spending, legitimacy of transfers by owners, operational availability, and resilience of the technology infrastructure (Bank of Ghana, 2022; Fanti et al, 2022).

Interoperability

CBDC must at all costs avoid the risk of being a product culde- sac, in which only a specific set of transaction types can be undertaken. In an environment mostly unshackled by platform type, channel, or use cases, CBDC has to offer a seamless transactional experience for end-users with a variety of use cases. This will be achieved through an agile technology stack that integrates into existing platforms in the payment ecosystem.

Availability

Availability and ease of access to CBDC is an important benchmark, in view of the ease in accessing physical forms of money. As a digital version of a country’s currency, CBDC must be easily and readily available to all of its populace — the banked, underbanked, and unbanked alike — just as physical
cash is presently.

Currently, cash is distributed through a two-tier model, with commercial banks receiving it from the central bank and then distributing it to the general population (Huber, 2023). CBDC must not be perceived as the privilege of a selected few. Consumers must recognize its availability everywhere, and this will be evident through its distribution model. Commercial banks can equally distribute CBDCs through the retail ecosystem, including bank accounts, ATMs, retail merchants, and agency banking locations. Different countries may operate varying models for distribution of CBDC; however, it is pertinent that the responsibility and roles of each party in any distribution model is clear, especially that of the central bank, be it as the supervisory body or the operator (BIS, 2021a).

Another key area of consideration is the onboarding process of the unbanked. A tiered Know Your Customer (KYC) framework, which found significant success in mobile money deployments, can be considered to accommodate customers who, for some legitimate reasons, may not have the ability to meet standard on-boarding requirements. Ghana’s electronic money issuer guidelines prominently featured this concept, which subsequently helped onboard millions of customers into the mobile money ecosystem (Bank of Ghana, 2015).

In order to ensure true availability, the participation of merchants, traders, and small businesses in particular is imperative, as is an effective orientation for them to accept CBDC for payment and retail transactions (Ree, 2023). This will have a ripple effect of encouraging customer/consumer uptake in using CBDC to purchase products and services.

The use cases must also be broad enough to include government payments using CBDC. An example of this is the government of Jamaica using its JAM-DEX to pay seasonal workers in its Employment Generation (Christmas Work) Programme in the constituencies of North West St. Andrew and South East St. Andrew through contracting companies (Bank of Jamaica, 2023; Hall, 2023).

Inclusiveness

Inclusiveness is key to enabling the adoption of a CBDC. Thus, it is realized that central banks such as Ghana’s aim to financially include and facilitate “Access to digital payment services at the last mile (inclusiveness)” (Bank of Ghana, 2022). To be of an inclusive nature, there must exist several practical use cases and easily useable technologies/mediums to enable seamless adoption by users without excessive cost, or no cost at all. In his analysis, Tan (2023) posits that there is a correlation between consumer adoption and cost; consumers are much more inclined towards using and accepting CBDCs if the fees payable for possessing a CBDC wallet are low.

A comprehensive understanding of data and device penetration that could augment CBDC adoption may be needed in some countries to inform design decisions.

Further exploration of other device possibilities, such as smart cards, smart watches, and key fobs with the ability to simplify access to and usage of CBDC, has to be considered. This is particularly critical for frontier environments with limited access to communication network infrastructure, which have to rely on the establishment of local connectivity between devices via contact and contactless mechanisms such as Near Field Communication (NFC).

This notwithstanding, CBDCs must subsist with the flow and flexibility of the use of cash until full digital migration in future, as consumers with a preference for the use of physical fiat/cash must be allowed to choose that alternative (Acharya and Pandey 2023).

Empowering Individuals with CBDC Education

CBDCs are still a fairly new concept that require in-depth research and understanding by consumers, financial service providers, and regulators. A consumer-centric approach therefore involves prioritizing the education of the relevant stakeholders and the end-user. This includes adopting educational initiatives to equip end-users with the necessary understanding of how to use CBDCs safely and intuitively.

It is also imperative that consumers are given an indepth education on CBDCs, including their functionality, interoperability with the existing payment infrastructure, distinction from other digital currencies and virtual assets, and possible use cases. A key focus must be communicating that CBDC is still currency. This must be distinctly emphasized and made clear to avoid confusion with other digital currencies or even the misconception of CBDC being simply another digital payment service and not currency.

CBDC literacy is vital where use cases such as offline payments are being implemented (Bank of Canada, 2023; Bank of Ghana, 2022). The nuances of such a technology and use case must be carefully and satisfactorily explained to the end-users with practical demonstrations and try-outs by end-users to evaluate its feasibility. This is also crucial to prepare both consumers and merchants by allaying fears and misconceptions surrounding CBDCs and to enable both merchants and individuals to accept CBDC in all forms and use cases (Tan, 2023). The findings of various research initiatives, including that of Amarta and
Latifah (2023), make evident that financial literacy of CBDC, specifically, advances the digital readiness of consumers.

In countries where there are several native languages and local dialects, it will be useful to build capacity of educators to explain CBDC concepts to those who are not conversant in a national language, such as English, in dialects that they can truly comprehend in order to appreciate the workings of a CBDC. This would enable a further reach of the understanding of CBDCs, which will in turn influence uptake and acceptance. A future-forward approach will be to integrate a CBDC framework in schools once a country determines all the dimensions of its CBDC, in order to educate on risks, data privacy, and protection (Tanjung et al, 2022).

These literacy programs must be a collaborative effort with relevant agencies, both private and governmental, to enable a greater penetration of financial literacy on CBDC.

Consumer Understanding Studies: Engaging Consumers and Service Providers

The voice of the customer is integral to the design of human-centered CBDC. This involves an analysis of the payment habits and preferences of a country’s populace to ascertain the feasibility of deploying a CBDC.

Designing a CBDC with a clear perceived value by consumers necessitates embarking on consumer studies to better understand their needs. These studies aim at gaining insights on perceived and real challenges, prospects of adoption, and the added value in the use and implementation of a CBDC from the perspective of relevant stakeholders.

Engaging relevant stakeholders in the financial services ecosystem such as existing financial service providers — i.e., banks, fintechs, and dedicated electronic money issuers — is essential, primarily to ensure that there is a wholistic understanding of CBDCs by these service providers. Secondly, this serves as an avenue to elicit the opinions of these financial service providers in designing and developing a human-centered CBDC.

It is also imperative that the opinions of the general public (enduser/consumer) with respect to accessibility, transferability, exchangeability, acceptability, and security of the CBDC are obtained to enhance and inform the technology and operational design of the CBDC on one hand, and to enable the central bank in deploying CBDC and streamline its policy considerations on the other.

The target groups of these public engagements should also be all-encompassing, ranging from gender and age to geographical location and occupation, including traders, professionals, businesses owners, and casual workers, among others.

These engagements must be continuous and progressive throughout the lifespan of the CBDC project, from the stages of research, proof of concept, pilot, and launch, to ascertain constructive feedback on the functionality and uptake of the CBDC. These engagements and interactions would further refine the entire user experience.

Continuous Research and Development

As countries test and implement CBDCs, there is also the need to engage in a process of continuous research, learning, and application. A consumer research strategy is paramount, and each country is encouraged to, as much as possible, tailor its CBDC design to suit the needs of its country context and citizens who will be the ultimate end-users.

A continuous feedback loop that informs the central bank from various channels on the views, challenges, opportunities, and benefits of CBDCs will serve as an avenue to invest in the further enhancement of this novel concept. This can be done in partnership with commercial banks, fintechs, application developers, technology providers, or any other relevant stakeholder.

Countries that are considering deploying CBDC must also engage counterparts that are more advanced in their CBDC journey to identify practical opportunities and challenges and learn from their pilots, launches, and post-launch activities. This central bank-level engagement will be crucial to understanding the overall project implementation process and practical lessons that will aid in the development of a wellthought- out and human-centered CBDC.

Research activities such as customer diaries and other periodic surveys can be beneficial to this process.

Conclusion

The transformational nature of technology and innovation in almost every sector of the global economy has now extended to currency, a historically physical payment instrument. It is therefore critical that the end-user for whom CBDCs are made is primed for this.

The successful implementation of a CBDC would be pivoted on some epoch-making tenets such as its design, perceived trust and safety, cyber resilience, interoperability, availability, inclusiveness, governance, financial literacy, and continuous research and development.

Decisions pertaining to all the above must prioritize the enduser in order to augment uptake and acceptance of CBDCs. Ignore and omit the Vox Populi? Risk the fatality of slow uptake and acceptance.

DISCLAIMER: The views herein expressed are those of the authors and not that of Bank of Ghana.

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