CALS-Built App Makes Used-Car Buying a Game

Monday, July 25, 2016
The Car Smart app walks young users through all the steps of buying a used car.

Purchasing a car can be a stressful experience, especially for first-time buyers.

A new mobile app developed at the University of Arizona is making the process a little more fun by teaching teens and young adults about the used-car buying process through interactive games.

The Car Smart app, available for free for iPads and Android devices, targets 16- to 21-year-olds and uses educational games to walk them through all the steps of buying a used automobile, including talking to their parents about the purchase, visiting the dealership, negotiating price, getting a loan, visiting a mechanic, getting insurance and ultimately walking away with a car.

To develop the app, the UA's Take Charge America Institute in the John and Doris Norton School for Family and Consumer Sciences partnered with the nonprofit Young Adult Consumer Education Trust in Washington state and the Mobile Matters app development team in the UA's University Information Technology Services division.

"The idea of the app is to get users to think beyond the price tag of a car, to get them to start thinking about the big picture with respect to all the dimensions of the car purchase," said Mike Staten, director of the Take Charge America Institute, which focuses on educating young people how to manage finances and make informed choices as they move into adult life.

The app follows a typical video game format, in which players navigate different "levels" to achieve their end goal: making an informed used car purchase. Challenges along the way include educational multiple-choice questions, coin collecting and test-driving the car. Users' outcomes vary based on the decisions they make in the game.

The app focuses on used cars because they are more accessible in price for young buyers, said Staten, associate dean for career and academic services in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"It's really meant for people who are trying to do this on their own and may not have a support network or close advice of someone in making the decision," Staten said. "It gives young people a way to become conversant in car purchase decisions so they can talk through these things."

The "gamification" of education has proved to be an effective way to teach young people financial concepts, Staten said.

"Video games are particularly effective because they create the incentive to want to go farther," Staten said. "You're working through these levels, and oftentimes you're picking up concepts and you don't even realize it."

The Car Smart app was tested by focus groups of UA students in the Take Charge Cats program, a group that provides personal financial education to college and K-12 students in the greater Tucson community.

It also was demonstrated in the Science City tent at the Tucson Festival of Books on the UA campus in the spring.

Robert Lanza, principal information technology support analyst in the Norton School and the technical lead on the app, said many parents at the festival were eager to have their teens test it out. Feedback from the young users was positive, Lanza said.

"It's so relevant for young people, and they really enjoy playing it," Lanza said. "Outside of buying a house, a car is the major thing you're going to be putting a lot of money into."

The Car Smart app is available at iTunes, Google Play and Consumer Jungle, a financial education website developed by the UA and the Young Adult Consumer Education Trust.

Mike Staten
Director / Take Charge America Institute