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The Biggest Mistakes Banks Make in Mobile App Design

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How can banks make their mobile apps more competitive? We recently asked Greg Nudelman, principal and CEO of San Francisco-based DesignCaffeine, who has worked with USAA, Intuit, and Wells Fargo on app design, about his pet peeves.

What are the biggest mistakes all app developers, but especially bank app developers, make?

Too many people try to approach app development the way they approach web development. They say, "How can you simplify the [website] experience to the level that it can be fit to a small screen?" That's the completely wrong question to ask. They're missing the entire opportunity that is presented by devices. You have to start from the ground up. The best way to approach that is lean methodology.

The first question you have to ask [the user] is, "Where are you?" That drives a lot of the use case development. In the past, we've looked at personas first and foremost because, for instance, if a retired grandmother of six and a young lawyer apply for insurance online, their priorities and their paths will be quite different. Personas have been an excellent tool for us to explore people's behavior and create applications people know and love. But when the grandmother of six and the lawyer need a parking space, they have similar behaviors it's more about your context, not your persona any longer. The context will include the persona.

So would you say collecting geolocation information and convincing people to opt in to that is critical?

Absolutely. That's just the beginning. The new devices in the Android line and Apple's longer-range Bluetooth devices have shown us the way of the future and how much integration we can expect further out. The Galaxy S4 helps the car respond to the owner by knowing who's sitting in the driver's seat. The NFC chip activates, the seat adjusts to your position and your favorite stations come on the radio. We're just scratching the surface with this capability, where truly our environment is responding to us through this cybernetic sense.

In the financial world, many people are miles behind the curve. The financial life has always been bogged down, it's difficult to get at your data. USAA debuted a four-digit unlock code before many other banks did. That alone made it much more usable than the bulk of the applications out there. And GoBank has an interesting feature where by swiping on the login screen, you can get at your balance information without typing in a password. [Several other banks have this feature, too, including ING Direct, Bank of the West and City Bank Texas.]

What are some ways banks can make mobile banking easier, requiring less data entry on the customer's part but still maintaining security?

We've explored different on-board sensors that are available on the phone, and there's more stuff on these devices than we know what to do with. You can have things like biometric pressure, which allows you to figure out which floor of the building someone's on, proximity sensors, things of that nature.

The current systems, as difficult as they are to access, are not particularly secure. When you think about the four-digit code that a lot of banks and Google Wallet use, that code is what most people use to unlock their phone, their ATM card and their online banking account, and that is a huge breach of security if you think about it. It's very easy to hack and once you crack one you can get access to a person's entire financial life. We've got to find different ways to secure it. I really like Apple's approach with the thumbprints. I also really like Android's approach with facial recognition.

What are some of the shortcomings of the current crop of mobile banking apps?

A classic pattern is the form-first pattern, where you take a web form and convert it into a mobile alternative by presenting a blank form. Unfortunately, when you look at it on a mobile device, each field takes you to a separate screen, for instance to pick an account number from a big list, and then it goes back to the form again, partially filled. It takes eight tabs or screens just to transfer funds from checking to savings. I think there are much better ways to do this. For example, if you take the wizard approach, which provides a dedicated screen for each of the fields, the transfer can be done in four steps, half the clicks. It's the same number of fields and the same amount of data but very different screens and flow.

A year ago I spoke with Brad Smith at Intuit, who was talking about adding more data prepopulation to their apps to save user time and effort. Recently I spoke with AT&T and Verizon, who are trying to offer people a simpler way of accessing their accounts by populating their new account forms with phoneaccount data. Does that idea have legs?

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Comments (3)
Great article. Mobile apps will help banks serve customers better, banks can improve security in these apps by having multi tier password and other encryption tools to protect their customer data. This will help banks improve existing services and provide new ones. I work for McGladrey and there's a newsletter on our website with great information for banks on optimizing existing technology and other valuable insight into improving overall performance. @ "Eight ways for your financial institution to boost performance now" http://bit.ly/1fBWe9u
Posted by williamson2703 | Wednesday, January 22 2014 at 7:30AM ET
This was a nice intro to the subject of "Biggest Mistakes Banks Make in Mobile App Design"

Penny, what I would really like to see is an in depth series on the subject. Greg's comments on "the biggest mistakes all app developers, but especially bank app developers, make" was spot on. A mobile banking app for a smartphone should not be a simplified or stripped down version of a full fledged web version. I expect a full fledged online banking experience that takes advantage of the unique hardware of my smartphone or tablet. Remote deposit capture is the best success story of taking advantage of a smartphone hardware.

The problem of expecting a full fledged online banking experience on a mobile platform is also problematic as I believe online banking is still broken. It is still deeply rooted in a check book register replacement with new technology bolted on top. The neo banks (Moven, Simple, and T-Mobile) get to start from scratch. Banks and their vendors need to do the same.

@dmgerbino
Posted by @dmgerbino | Wednesday, January 22 2014 at 5:11PM ET
A key take-away from this interview was banks' lack of focus on developing apps around the user. User Experience (UX) studies need to be conducted frequently throughout the design and build processes in order to find out desired (or undesired) features that may not otherwise surface. It doesn't make sense to me that many banks fail to do this, as they aren't a huge investment of resources. In many cases, they can even save money by fixing a problem before it is created, and eliminate the need to re-code. Customer expectations for mobile banking functionalities are increasing, and banks need to get serious about designing around them.
Posted by Alex Johnson | Tuesday, January 28 2014 at 5:23PM ET
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