As financial companies develop more tools to make their online banking services more interactive, some payments executives are realizing that consumers are still concerned with security, proactive communication and more personalized experiences.

"There's a lot of talk in the industry about what online banking should have and what it should be able to do," said Stessa Cohen, a research director with Gartner Inc. "But no one is asking, 'What do customers want to do?' "

Gartner asked that very question in a survey of nearly 4,000 online banking customers in the United States and United Kingdom.

The results confirmed what most bankers already know: online banking offerings have become more sophisticated as banks try to compete for customers, while consumers have become more technologically savvy and more willing to use multiple providers — 41% of U.S. online banking customers use two or more providers online, as do 48% of U.K. customers.

There are some notable generational differences. Cohen said older customers still tend to be more concerned about secure communications, while younger people, who have more faith in the security of online communication, have a greater interest in self-directed personalization tools.

But Cohen said that in general, it's the less-flashy features that resonate more. Secure communication was the highest priority for both U.S. and U.K. customers. Fifty-nine percent of U.S. respondents, and 55% in the United Kingdom, said that having a secure e-mail tool that they could use to ask questions about their accounts and receive answers was important or very important to them.

Forty-two percent of U.S. online customers said that receiving alerts regarding their bank and credit card accounts was a top priority; this feature was of less importance across the Atlantic, where only 11% of online users rated it important or very important.

Ease of use is also critical. The ability to access all of a customer's accounts with a financial institution by logging in once was rated the second-most important feature by 54% of U.S. customers and 42% of U.K. customers.

But a lot of banks do not offer single sign-on, Cohen said, adding that banks should borrow from online retailers. "Retail has worked hard to make sure the shopping cart is not abandoned," she said. "Banks don't have the same mentality about making it easier for consumers."

JPMorgan Chase & Co. encompasses a number of the features that consumers identify as important, Cohen said.

The banking company has offered customers a single sign-on for online accounts and secure e-mail for years, and more recently put in place a "fairly robust alerts system," according to Paul Heller, a senior vice president for the bank's Internet group.

In September, JPMorgan Chase rolled out Blueprint, a new set of online features for card customers (which will soon expand to other account types), which allows them to create customized payment plans and track their progress in paying off their expenses.

Cohen also said banks can take a cue from nonbank personal finance sites, such as Mint Software Inc. (which is being acquired by Intuit Inc.) and Wesabe Inc. — not only for how they enable consumers to analyze spending, but for the simple, more colloquial language they use. She also cited the financial goal-setting site Smarty Pig LLC as an example of a nonbank that offers the kind of easy-to-use analysis and tracking features that banks should adopt.

The ability to analyze spending and cash flow and to set up an account to save for a specific goal that people can fund from existing accounts were both among the top-five priorities for both U.S. and U.K. respondents to Gartner's survey.

According to Cohen, banks should "watch the credit unions," which are beginning to outpace banks in many cases in terms of the communication and personalization features they offer.

For example, Vancity Savings Credit Union of Vancouver, British Columbia, is known for its "Change Everything" message.

William Azaroff, the director of Web engagement and banking for Vancity, said it strives to make online language "plainspoken, but playful" at times.

Vancity has engaged consumers because of the incidental features it offers, such as allowing online customers to search transaction history over any period in the past 10 years. "It's just basic usability," Azaroff said.