When a recent analysis of Apple's and Google's app stores found that two of RBS Citizens' mobile apps garnered the highest customer reviews among banks, we decided to find out more about the bank's philosophy and approach to mobile app design.

The bank's apps received 4.5 stars on both platforms, 97% favorable comments in Google Play, and 93% favorable reviews on Apple's App Store. (The analysis was conducted in May and June by Xtreme Labs, a provider of mobile software.)

"Citizens has the mobile formula figured out — they've got ease of use, key functionality and frequent updates, minus bugs, and that equals a winning app," says Mike Stern, director of the financial services group at Xtreme Labs.

The bank says it keeps a laser focus on customer experience.

"Customers choose to interact with us in multiple channels, so we want to make sure it's an excellent experience across all those channels," says William Herrmann, senior vice president and head of digital at RBS Citizens, which is based in Providence, R.I. and has $126 billion in assets. "It's very challenging to ensure a great experience in a channel where you can't see the customer interacting with us."

The bank solicits feedback from customers through the call center, branches and customer surveys, along with reading comments on the app stores. The bank's mobile team sits in the call center alongside the customer service reps who are taking questions and complaints about the apps, to gather that instant feedback.

"We're very close [to the call center] because if you look at data, sometimes you miss the thing that maybe you don't characterize correctly," Herrmann says. Hearing a customer describe an issue or suggestion is valuable. "Good ideas come from everywhere, whether it's something new or an improvement or finding something that's not working the way we expected it to." Also, it's to the bank's benefit to have the call center field fewer calls about mobile banking.

One reason behind many customer calls, the team has heard, is help with password resets.

Taking a closer look at the login page, the mobile team found that it had become cluttered over the years — there were more than 20 links on that page, to ads and related content. "You're clearly there to do one thing," Herrmann says. "As we looked at the value any of those links was providing compared to the distraction it caused, we concluded it would be addition by subtraction if we just pulled off the page anything that was not critical to the experience."

Like some others, RBS Citizens takes a "mobile first" design approach. "When you boil it down to a small screen, you have to make it as Spartan as possible — needs only," Herrmann says. "It should still look good but there should be nothing that isn't necessary." This translates to a clean tablet app, he says.

Keeping "mobile actives" happy is core to RBS Citizens' overall strategy.

"We want to meet the customer where they are, so the omni/multichannel approach is very important to us," Herrmann says. "Wherever they want to interact, we'll do our best to meet them there." Online and mobile banking users are just as or more active in the branches than the average customer, he notes.

While some banks want to shift customers away from full-service channels like branches and call centers toward self-service options like online and mobile banking, RBS Citizens says it does not.

"My team's goal is satisfaction," Herrmann says. "We want to make sure people are aware these services are available to them, that they understand the benefits. Then we leave it up to them."

The bank has seen 105% growth in mobile app use over the past year. Mobile users log in 50% more times per month than online banking customers. "Which makes sense — you've got your computer with you all the time in the case of a mobile app," Herrmann says.

RBS Citizens' high-performing mobile apps are exceptions, according to Stern. "The overall finding [of Xtreme Labs' analysis of app store reviews] is unfortunately that banks aren't quite up to par in delivering simple, usable experiences that consumers come to expect from other apps," he says.

Mobile apps are holding banking IT professionals' feet held to the fire in a way they haven't before, he observes. "Now the B of Ah app sits right beside the Twitter and Facebook app on your iPhone home screen. That's the bar being set."

One nonbank mobile app standout, he says, is HipMunk. "They built this beautiful interface for making airline bookings and they're eating everybody's lunch — Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak, all the different brands. Because this app makes it so much easier to book a flight, people are using it in droves." HipMunk is reaping new customers, loyalty and engagement.

Such simplicity would benefit any mobile app designer, he says. "You can try to build as fancy a car as you want to, but if you can't find the steering wheel and the brakes don't work, what's the point?" he says. "Banks and everybody else get misled into trying to do all sorts of things on mobile, when really you just need to make sure it's a simple, intuitive and snappy experience, so that folks actually want to use those applications to do transactions, look up information, and search for branches."

Stern notes that these are things that should happen in three seconds or taps or less. "That's the amount of time somebody has before their bus comes and they have to put their phone back in their pocket; those are the kinds of expectations people have," he says.