What would it take to make a mobile banking application outstanding?

Well, my "day job" is designing mobile and online banking apps, so I've spent some time thinking about this question (a couple of years, in fact).

The most important thing I've learned (through various iterations, user tests, and multiple releases) is this: Mobile banking is a specialized focused application. It's shouldn't be a one-to-one mapping of all the features available in online banking. It's about making the core things as easy as possible: balance checking, quick payments and transfers, and transaction lists/review. You get that core stuff right, you're half-way to an outstanding mobile banking experience.

Now, if you get the core features obvious and usable, how do you get to the "next level"? The first thing to do is to understand the context and frequency of use and how people think of mobile banking on their phone. This should help you take a first cut at the must-have "value added" features versus "nice-to-have" or unnecessary features.

One quick example: When I was on a major mobile banking app design project last year we decided to not implement the "add a payee" feature for international payments. The reason was simple: After surveying users we identified that this was so low on thier priority list that it was easy to drop (analytical data also told us it was a seldom-used feature in the online system). We had a design solution to allow users to add international payees, but it was not optimal and would have been a significant development effort. Deciding what NOT to do is as important as focusing on what features you are going to provide.

When it comes to identifying "value added" features, look at functionality that will save users time and hopefully money. Check deposit using the camera on a smartphone is a HUGE delighter for customers, as are "pro-active" alerts that warn when something bad is about to happen (like an overdraft). Again, conceptualize ideas and present them to users to get an early sense of what will make your app outstanding.

Finally, fully embrace the interactive aspect of mobile apps… use pagination, animation, and other techniques to make the app respond and "live" for users. Just don't go crazy with stuff flying around everywhere – interactivity should support user tasks, not distract them from what they are trying to do.

See question on Quora

Native Mobile Apps Offer Advantages Over “Wrapper Apps” for Financial Services


Originally published on Fiserv’s “The Point” Blog, July 10th, 2012.

It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that mobile apps have changed everything. The ways people work, shop and live have been enhanced by dedicated applications that support their specific needs. The advertising tagline from Apple – “there’s an app for that” – has become less about marketing and more of an accepted truth, reflecting the wide-ranging impact of mobile apps on our lives and work.

Not all apps are created equal, however. Many apps are poorly designed and are quickly deleted by users after one try. Some apps are elegantly designed but lack a solid infrastructure to support the user. And others, well, they aren’t really apps at all. They are websites, packaged as apps. These “wrapper” apps are shells that are downloaded and installed on the device. The shell then accesses mobile formatted web content from a traditional web server.

In some instances, such as a news or sports app primarily used to display online content, wrapper apps are perfectly fine. For others, such as a mobile banking app intended to enable more interaction, not so much. When you compare a native app designed for a specific mobile platform to a wrapper app, native apps offer some significant advantages. The primary one is the performance of the app itself. A native app resides on the device and doesn’t have to “re-download” itself every time it’s opened. A wrapper app on the other hand does have to download the Web forms and screens that aren’t preloaded in the app itself. This means a native app is faster and highly available, which is critically important for financial services.

The second factor is interactivity. As good as mobile Web technology has become, it is not always as responsive as a native app, or as powerful in terms of the capabilities it can support. For example, wrapper apps cannot enable the deposit of a check via a camera-equipped smart phone, a capability that is increasingly in demand. Wrapper apps can’t take advantage of some of the core code that is in the operating system of the phone itself – code that allows for smooth transitions, graphing and animations that are an inherent part of a good user experience.

To be fair, there are some advantages to wrapper apps. Initial costs can be lower, as Web forms take less time to code and deploy. In addition, the same forms can be presented across multiple phones, served up through different wrappers. If you choose to develop a wrapper app, the most important factor is to create a “homogenized” user experience, in which case web technologies such as HTML and CSS can be used where appropriate along with native capability where the user experience requires.

When evaluating your mobile financial services strategy, keep in mind the experience your user expects and choose the technology that will enable your financial institution to deliver that experience.

Making ‘Touch Banking’ Work for Customers

Originally written for and published by BAI/Banking Strategies, December 22, 2010

Within the last year, tablet computers, led by the Apple iPad, have made a tremendous splash in the market. While only a handful of financial institutions are currently offering banking applications for tablets, the growing use of these devices merits careful monitoring.

Today, there are two major trends driving tablet banking solutions: ubiquitous connectivity and a larger screen enabling touch capabilities. The significant amount of real estate on a tablet screen can support robust banking functionalities and provide a unique engagement point offering a much easier and richer way for consumers to interact with their bank. They can literally “touch” and move their money in a way that can’t be duplicated by clicking a mouse on a traditional Website.

Undoubtedly, the advances in connectivity, mobility and user interface embodied by the iPad and other tablets are creating new possibilities for how financial solutions are delivered, adopted and accessed – making them part of a larger trend that is re-making financial services. The plethora of iPhone applications for mobile banking has already proven that the iPad has sustainability as a tool for accessing accounts.

Consumers are likely to continue using mobile devices to manage their finances during their daily routine while utilizing a larger, “lean back” device like the iPad to access their money in more relaxed situations, such as when they are traveling. Applications customized for tablet devices give financial institutions the unique opportunity to provide a combination of mobile access with a richer money management experience.

This change in serving customers who have traditionally browsed online or used mobile phones to access account information has profound implications for banking. The iPad represents an important opportunity for financial institutions to increase engagement points with their customers. It also provides an opportunity for smaller banks to show innovation and more effectively compete with larger banks.

However, before investing in developing or launching an iPad application, banks must first determine what their customers’ wants and needs are and understand what specific problem they are attempting to solve. Being in the marketplace with a tablet application is not nearly as critical as providing customers with a superior user interface and a strong value proposition for how the solution will benefit them. Designing an application that is not based on user needs is simply a waste of money. While the iPad does provide banks with the opportunity to offer a unique experience, providing top-notch functionality is the key to driving strong adoption and usage.

Financial institutions should focus on what they are trying to achieve with the technology – the specific problem they are trying to solve for the user. For example, are they trying to provide users with easier access to their money, more control over their finances or better customer service? Once the end goal is identified, the specific “problem area” can be addressed through technology enhancements driven by data from focus groups, user experience testing, ethnographic and market surveys. Utilizing internal or third-party resources to perform this due diligence and then make informed recommendations regarding software and application development will facilitate the delivery of an intuitive, superior user experience.

It is such investments that will differentiate a specific bank’s user experience and leave others trailing behind – and this applies to every channel and touchpoint a financial institution has with its customers.