For all of the touch-screen, gesture, and voice technology we’ve got, it’s still kind of tough to send someone $5. Despite the ubiquity of Paypal, and every digital wallet since, there is no digital technology that makes sharing money as seamless as giving someone cash.
That was, until Square Cash. The company made famous for its iPhone credit card reader has made an about-face to apps and peripherals. Its latest platform allows you to email someone money simply by CCing firstname.lastname@example.org and including the total (like $44.29) in the subject line.
You can use any email provider you like (unlike Google Wallet, which is Gmail-based). Include an additional note or don’t. The money will be beamed from your debit account to a friend’s. (And if the receiver doesn’t have an account set up with Square, they’ll be prompted accordingly.)
"The philosophy we’ve had at Square since the beginning is we want to build tools that work with the things people already have," Creative Director Robert Andersen tells Co.Design. "We don’t want to add technology for the sake of adding technology."
Through our conversation, Andersen kept referring to email with an interesting word: He called it "foundational"—implying a level of integration with our digital habits beyond even the permeance of our smartphones or Facebook accounts. But sending money via email was a bigger design challenge than one might expect, especially if you’re a software company that’s cut its teeth on the transience of push notifications.
"There are interesting considerations," Anderson explains. "We thought about things like, what if you send five payments to five people ... how do we show you the success or pending states of those without an app to show you a transaction history?"
Ultimately, Square didn’t attempt to reinvent the way email works. I, for instance, asked if they’d considered using the existing email metaphor of an attachment to send money. The problem with such a scenario, Anderson explained, was that it suddenly required technology beyond the ubiquity of a random inbox. The same goes for showing transaction histories and pending payments. Square Cash uses our packratting email nature to fill our inbox with updates to become a makeshift transactional history. And to keep it straight? They simply thread the emails regarding any transaction to a friend just as you would any conversation with a friend.
In fact, Square is so confident in its approach to Cash that the coupled iPhone and Android apps are really just trojan horses to learn how to send cash via email. Sure, the apps greet you with big clean typography that prompts you to send money, but ultimately, they each redirect you to your phone’s default email client to actually send the payment.
Since Cash was announced, I’ve been debating with colleagues whether it was brilliant, invisible design, or the type of macro-based shortcut that only an engineer would dream up. I’m siding with the former. Just because a core service isn’t wrapped in an app with a glossy, physics-based UI doesn’t mean it can’t be simple or intuitive. That said, Square Cash does require you to learn a sort of secret handshake to enter. And when I consider how many of my friends and family over 40 are still debating the definition of hashtag, well, I guess it’s a safe hedge that Square Cash is still wrapped in that glossy app.