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A decade after credit unions first went online with homebanking, CU websites may now have reached a plateau.

Innovation is at a standstill, in a sense: Web banking hasn't seen new features since 2000, when account aggregation first appeared.

It's true that existing features have experienced a Renaissance, such as the resurgence of account-to-account transfer capabilities last year-even though inter-institution transfers were first introduced in 1995.

For a while, the pace was hectic. Stanford FCU beat banks to the Internet when it launched homebanking in 1993. Subsequently, credit unions were quick to establish Internet branches equipped with everything new, including transaction histories, electronic statements and check images, transfers, loan applications, calculators, knowledge bases-and even account aggregation.

More than half of the nation's credit unions now host websites. Callahan & Associates, Inc. lists some 5,000 CU websites-most with online banking-at its U.S. Website Directory. "Callahan is just not talking about what you can do with your website now," said Leslie Smith, eSystems coordinator at Envision CU and frequent contributor to Callahan webinars and conferences regarding electronic services.

During the lull, credit unions aren't racing to add distinct features, or what Smith calls a "baseline" feature. "I just can't think of what else we would add to our website that we could possibly need," Smith continued.

Envision CU is no slacker in the homebanking department. A full 40% of the CU's 31,000-members are active users of its eBranch.

In addition, Envision was the first credit union to chat live with its members online via LivePerson Inc.'s Live Chat product.

Instead, Envision is following what Smith sees as a general trend to maximize the baseline features that are already on the website, she said.

"Members never complain that we don't offer enough features at our website, but a lot of times we could make what we have better," Smith continued. "That's where we're at. We're making what we offer the best it can be."

For example, the $180-million Envision is focusing on its existing, online financial advice engines, recently adding an identity theft advisor provided by CUNA.

The $180-million CU also developed and launched its own car-buying advisor that helps members find the best price on vehicles, Smith said. "Online advice is just an added benefit for our members," she explained.

Although Envision offers online loan applications-another baseline feature-the CU is working on adding automated decisioning and instant online loan approval, she said.

Additionally, live chat is a baseline service that Envision may one day embellish with a secure mode that will allow members to discuss sensitive financial information or perform online transactions with agents.

As Smith continues to improve how envisioncu.com handles, she focuses on two criteria-navigability and reliability, she said. "Features have to be easy to find. And if the website is down for just one minute, we don't hear the end of it."

Smith admires the simplicity apparent in the sites hosted by First Technology CU in Beaverton, Ore., APP FCU in West Palm Beach, Fla. and Wells Fargo Bank.

These sites vary in their presentation and features, "but the sites suit the institutions' needs," said Smith.

"First Technology Credit Union is all Microsoft guru people and they want to have all the electronic services," Smith said, referring to the credit union's high-tech field of membership. "I'm sure they have high-speed Internet in their cars."

And even though online account aggregation is a tenable option for some CUs, "Envision won't have account aggregation," Smith added. "Our members aren't asking for it, and so we choose not to offer it."

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