Retail banks are under constant pressure to update their digital designs so customers will actually want to login.

"Design is increasingly important," says Ben Rogers, a research director at Filene Research Institute, a think tank for credit unions. "It's easier and easier all the time to take individual functions of financial institutions and really go to the best-of-class provider. …Design isn't just nice to have, it's a differentiator."

BMO Harris Bank reinvigorated some of its online banking features late last year in a bid to make personal financial management (PFM) tools easier to use at a time when tech-savvy newcomers like Mint, Level, Personal Capital and Check offer consumers alternatives.

The investment underscores the bank's mission to help make people make sense of their money.

"We made pretty significant user interface updates," says Patrick Reetz, who heads online and mobile banking for BMO Harris. The spending analysis tools now automatically pull in data from existing BMO Harris deposit accounts, for example, while users can customize their dashboards with apps. For instance, they can add a savings tool to the front page of Total Look, the bank's PFM suite. From the beginning, customers have been able to tie in outside financial services accounts.

Banks across the country are continually working to improve the digital user experience.

"The more complex services we expect from banks' online and mobile [offerings], the better the design has to be," says John Schulte, senior vice president and chief information officer at Mercantile Bank of Michigan. "It has to be easy to use."

That requires banks to finesse and prioritize digital banking projects.

"Like anything, when it comes to a tech investment, [it takes] priorities and budget to get there," says Reetz. "Total Look was just in need of a refresh."

The unit of BMO Financial Group first launched PFM tools seven years ago.

BMO Harris' updates come at a time when banks nationwide have struggled to get customers to use more traditional PFM tools that, for instance, provide pie charts that show spending by category. The reasons for that vary, including what's arguably the biggest barrier: they require the customer to know the tools exist, then enter data, such as savings goals. Total Look's usage and adoption is similar to what one observes in the marketplace, says Reetz. Industry analysts cite adoption of PFM services pulling in single digits for most banks.

BMO Harris, however, is identifying two specific target markets for its refreshed tools: mass affluent customers and recent college graduates.

It's in good company.

SunTrust recently introduced financial planning tools targeted at mass affluent clients, a segment ripe for such tools.

"This is a target market that benefits greatly from aggregation because they have more complex financial lives scattered across financial institutions," says Mark Schwanhausser, director of omnichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy & Research, a Greenwich Associates LLC company. It's not the only change coming to PFM tools.

Banks are also starting to slowly integrate PFM features into their online banking interfaces to reduce friction from the user experience. Regions Bank, for example, is featuring pie charts of transactions on a customer's online banking home page.

The efforts point to a growing trend driven by startups: PFM and digital banking becoming one and the same interface. Mobile devices add new dimensions to the combination.

Since the iPhone's debut in 2007, the PFM category has evolved with designs for mobile-first experiences. Digital native startups like Level and Numbrs and neo-banks like Simple, now owned by BBVA, and Moven are raising the bar for banks by tying PFM tools to a mobile channel to offer better data visuals so that consumers know, say, when they spent $200 on coffee in a given time period. Such nontraditional providers require little work of the users to understand their data when they're pressed for time.

The trend is evidence of a role banks could play in mobile commerce eventually: serving as financial advisors to shoppers.

Banks, already challenged to keep up with customer mobile demands but having the best access to consumers' spend data, are expected to tuck more next-gen PFM-like experiences into their apps.

"I do see a place for PFM in mobile," Reetz says. "We are considering it for future investments."