Offering good digital banking capabilities is important to all banks these days, but for Ally Bank, it is non-negotiable.

As a direct bank, Ally has to provide its customers with everything they might need on their desktop or in their palm if it intends to keep its customers happy and get new ones to sign up.

"Digital is very critical for us," said Carrie Sumlin, the digital consumer executive of the $111 billion-asset Ally. "Our philosophy is to put a high value on the digital customer experience. There's not a backup plan for them to walk into a branch and complete a transaction."

In the past year, Sumlin and her team have enriched the customer experience by streamlining its online banking channel, making logins simpler and predicting what customers might need when they login. For those efforts, she is recognized as a Digital Banker of the Year finalist.

One place where branches have a leg up on digital banking is in financial advice and tips. Without branches, Ally has had to come up with ways to fill that void. To that end, the bank launched its Ally Assist function in May 2015 on its mobile banking app for Apple users.

Using automated intelligence and customer data profiles, Ally Assist analyzes accounts and transactions to generate useful information including smart reminders, potential issues and financial recommendations. The service also acts as a virtual assistant in responding to specific customer requests, via speech or typed entries, to provide customers with timely responses and information based on their specific needs. The system learns from individual interactions and transactional behavior to determine the likelihood of needed information, Sumlin said.

"It does a review and analysis for what customer might be needing assistance on, based on their transaction history," Sumlin explained. For example, a customer can use Ally Assist to initiate bill payments, request more detailed information on a particular transaction, or ask for insight into their spending and savings habits.

"And if the customer isn't interested" in what Ally Assist predicted they might be, "they can navigate elsewhere," she added.

Ally has also simplified its mobile login experience by taking it from a two-step process to a one-step process. Before, customers had to enter their username and passwords and then pick a their trusted image from a lineup. Now, customers register their device with a code Ally sends the first time they log in with that device. From then on, the username and password suffice. Sumlin said this was done to make the login process speedier.

"It's not less secure; it just adds to the overall experience and removes a step that customers previously had to do to log in," she said.

While mobile banking is a hot topic, approximately half of Ally's retail deposit customers primarily use online banking. Last year it overhauled its online banking platform with streamlined navigation, a faster login process and a consolidated snapshot of all accounts. The move also gives the bank greater flexibility and control in introducing future enhancements.

Further, Sumlin said the online banking platforms across smartphones, tablets and computers are now consistent experiences.

"We created a new interface and design, and also made it mobile-centric," Sumlin said. "If you access online banking using a tablet web browser, and then later on a desktop, the navigation and functions would flow seamlessly together and not appear disjointed at all."

Offering top-notch digital capabilities is critical for a bank like Ally, because it is the primary avenue for building loyalty and value with its customers, said Jacob Jegher, senior vice president at Javelin Strategy & Research.

"If your customers don't have anywhere to go other than digital channels, the pressure is on you to perform," he said. "For a bank like Ally or other types of direct banks, it creates interesting opportunities as well as challenges for them. Every bank wants to be the best" at digital, "but they have to be the best."