Citigroup says the number of customers using its mobile app rose 25% to 10 million from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of 2018.

What made that happen? The primary factor was the addition of features to the app that people really want, said Alice Milligan, the chief digital client experience officer at Citi.

The bank analyzed the tasks done through all channels: interactive voice response, call center, branch, online and mobile.

“Those with highest volume are the most in demand, so we want to make sure they’re in the app,” Milligan said.

Growth in active mobile users at the big four banks


Then her team zeroed in on banking activities that have a heavy emotional impact such as disputes and lost or stolen cards. That kind of problem is less frequent, “but when it does happen and you get it wrong, that’s something people really remember,” Milligan said. “If you get it right, that’s something they really remember as well.”

The high-volume and high-emotion tasks have become top priorities for the company.

Three new features have driven the biggest upticks in Citi’s mobile app usage, she said.

One lets people handle transaction disputes within the app.

Emmett Higdon, director of digital banking at Javelin Strategy & Research, gives the bank points for this feature.

“I think that’s a great example of helpful, consumer-aware functionality that we haven’t brought to mobile in a big way,” Higdon said. “They’re one of very few banks to offer the ability to quickly and easily dispute a transaction within the mobile app. Why would you want someone to spend 20 minutes on the phone with a rep when I can do that within the app in a couple of minutes?”

A second recently added feature provides personal financial management and spending categorization for noncustomers through data aggregation as well as for customers. The third feature lets people replace lost or stolen cards.

Communications have also driven digital usage, Milligan said. Each time the bank launches new features, it notifies customers before, during and after to make sure they understand the feature and how and why they should use it.

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“Whenever Citi rolls out a new piece of functionality, they do a good job of marketing it to their mobile users,” Higdon said. “They put a splash screen up there, so when you log in you can’t miss it.”

Citi also has a policy of having employees constantly teach consumers about its mobile app features, in phone conversations, in the branches and elsewhere. And it partnered with Sunday Sky to create personalized videos that show people how to do things they struggle with in the mobile app.

It uses AI to direct some of its communications. For instance, if customers try to make a payment online and stop to call the bank, the first option they willl hear from the voice response system is, do you want to complete that payment?

Newer payment options like Zelle have also driven use of Citi’s mobile app, she said.

Alice Milligan, chief customer and digital experience officer for Citigroup's global cards unit.
Commonsense approach
“If all you have is innovation and shiny pebbles, but I can’t pay my bill easily, I can’t view my balance, I can’t dispute a charge, then I’m not interested in that,” Alice Milligan, Citi's chief digital client experience officer, says in describing her sense of the customer mindset.


To make its app easy to use to people of all generations, the bank looks to Apple for design inspiration.

“Whether you’re 75 or 8, you can figure out how to use an Apple product pretty quickly,” Milligan said. “As we think about design principles, we try to get it to the point where it’s simple for even the least sophisticated user.”

Customers want innovation, Milligan said, because Amazon, Google and Apple set that expectation. But they also expect the bank to get the basics right.

“If all you have is innovation and shiny pebbles, but I can’t pay my bill easily, I can’t view my balance, I can’t dispute a charge, then I’m not interested in that,” Milligan said. “We live and breathe banking so our customers don’t have to. You should be able to live your life, bank when you need and want to and feel comfortable that you’ll have a good retirement and your children can go to college, but you shouldn’t have to work too hard doing that.”

What’s next

In a few days Citi will launch voice navigation via Siri in the iOS version of its app.

“That’s our first foray into voice,” Milligan said. “We think that’s the way people are going to interact; it’s the next generation of navigation. And it helps eliminate things that are not easy to find and have therefore been a friction point.”

Other banks including USAA let people move through a mobile app using voice commands.

The bank is thinking about offering voice response on other devices, she said.

“We like to experiment across all platforms — it’s often informed by where our biggest user bases are,” Milligan said. For instance, many of the bank’s mobile app users have iPhones.

Citi is phasing in in-app messaging with a live customer representative.

“If you have a question or if you’re struggling, you can message someone,” Milligan said. Call center and branch staff have co-browsing tools that let them see exactly what the customer is trying to do, to give relevant advice.

It is considering offering smart statements, on which people could take notes, categorize expenses and such — the kinds of things some people still keep paper statements for.