How A College Student Helped Maps CU Develop New App

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Building on a successful track record of developing in-house applications, such as a mobile banking app called Sprig, Maps Credit Union has furthered its technological reach by working with a college intern to develop the CU's latest offering - an app called "Buy Local."

"Nicole researched similar apps, designed the user interface and was the primary developer on the app," says Maps CU Software Development Manager Loren Paulsen. "She was mentored by our senior developers."

Paulsen is referring to Nicole Phelps, a student at Oregon State University's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Paulsen, an Oregon State alumnus, says Maps recently joined the Multiple Engineering Cooperative Program and the Civil Engineering Cooperative Program (MECOP), a partnership between Oregon's universities and the software development industry.

"Maps CU gets access to the state's top computer science students," Phelps says. "It's a good recruiting tool and gives the students real-world experience developing complex financial applications."

Phelps interviewed with about 30 companies, including Maps CU, and was queried about the kind of software development she was interested in as well as her experience. A few weeks later, she received an acceptance letter from Maps CU.

"I had never heard of Maps Credit Union before, and I honestly had no idea about the difference between a credit union and a bank. This all changed, of course," says Phelps, who is 22. "By the end of the internship, I was very educated about the different financial institutions and how it all works."

The $480-million asset credit union, with 45,000 members, nine branches and 180 employees, has a wholly-owned software development credit union service organization called CU Wireless.

"We are best known for developing Sprig, which was the first direct-to-consumer mobile banking application," says Paulsen. "We operate over the shared branch network. Members of more than 300 credit unions have downloaded our app."

In the ever-changing mobile market, Paulsen says to remain competitive it's becoming commonplace for credit unions to develop more in-house applications; however, there are lessons to be learned.

"Even if you have web developers, you'll find that mobile apps are not always a natural extension of this skillset. There is a learning curve, but it's worth it, and finding those with app development skills will also become easier over time."

The initiative was a cross-organizational collaboration led by Amanda Brenneman, business development officer at Maps CU.

Brenneman's team was responsible for the Buy Local program, which curates deals and forms relationships with local businesses. "My team was responsible for delivering a mobile experience," says Paulsen.

The Buy Local app represents a bridge between merchants and members. And Paulsen says the program increases the value proposition for members.

"We've positively impacted both member satisfaction and transaction volumes. Once they join the Buy Local program, our partners see a 150% increase in transaction volume from Maps Members on average."

Phelps was tasked with researching existing industry websites and apps and formulating concepts.

"After taking note of features I liked in these apps and thinking of some on my own, I drew out some wireframes," recalls Phelps. " I drew what I thought the different screens of the app should look like and how the user would navigate to each of them."

After presenting to Paulsen, Brenneman and colleague Jill Nowacki, Phelps received the green light.

Phelps and fellow developer Maciej Majewski built the app in six months, the duration of Phelps' internship.

Available on iOS, Android smartphones and tablets, the app is in a "soft" launch, explains Paulsen. The official launch will coincide with an announcement in the CU's newsletter this month.

"I think the Buy Local app is enhancing the already awesome program that Amanda developed. Not only does the app allow credit union members to find local, possibly little-known businesses on the go, it provides the opportunity for members to form a tighter community," says Phelps.

With the downloaded app, members can also post their opinions related to merchant offers on the app and share an offer to their Facebook page via the app as well. "When other credit unions start to use this, the community will only grow stronger," she adds.

While Paulsen couldn't provide statistics related to member activity with the Buy Local app, 50 merchants have already signed up. For now, the credit union bases expected usage on its online channel.

"Today our Buy Local website gets 1,500 unique visitors per month," says Paulsen. "To give you a rough comparison, we have 17,000 active online banking users."

And like its Sprig offering, Maps CU intends to bring the Buy Local app to market in 2014.

"For quite some time, we've had ongoing conversations with other institutions about how they could implement similar programs on their own, but having the app really turns the concept into a product we can white-label," says Paulsen.

For Phelps, who is finishing her senior year, the future looks bright. She was recently hired as the mobile development leader for the Palo Alto startup Bioniq Health. Until she graduates, Phelps will virtually commute. She is currently working on an app meant to help people achieve health goals.

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