SedUIced

The Finovate conference is very well run and employs a great concept — 7-minute vendor demos. As a result, it has become one of the better attended fintech conferences. It’s a great place to gauge the temperature of the fintech industry on what’s hot these days.

For a great vendor-by-vendor analysis, check out Bank Innovation. I like the fact that BI has established its criteria for grading.

As for many other attendees, however, criteria for best in show appears to be less specific. I came away with a somewhat disturbing conclusion:

Many fintech people are seduced by UI.

This thought took hold after Money Desktop — one of the best in show winners — presented. After the demo, someone tweeted:

“Now that’s what I call innovation!”

I’m not downplaying what MD has done. Its tablet app and online offerings are very-well designed and highly creative.

But is another way to visualize your household budget really an “innovation”?

To the extent that no one else is doing it that way, then yes, it’s an innovation.

But it’s not an innovation that rises to the level of materially impacting the bottom line of a financial institution. I’m happy to entertain any arguments with this assertion. But I think — no, I KNOW — that you’ll have a hard time finding data to disprove my assertion. I’ve been looking for that data for 10 years with no luck.

And it’s the kind of innovation that creates new products or markets.

Interestingly, I don’t think Money Desktop disagrees with me. Its slick interface helps it win Finovate awards, garner press, and generate interest from prospective clients.

From my discussions with a few of the MD folks, I think that they agree that the real economic impact that will come from what they’re building won’t stem simply from having a great UI. The firm’s vision for how PFM will evolve is compelling, and I say that with the back-of-mind concern that I’m only saying it because I agree with it.

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Yet, looking at the list of best in show winners, I’m struck by the thought that these were the vendors whose apps had the slickest UI.

But is the purpose of the conference — and the best in show votes — to reward the best presenters? Or is to acknowledge those firms that are truly bringing the best — that is, most impactful — innovations to the financial services industry?

Lookng at the Bank Innovation scores, some of the best in show winners were rated low on profit potential. And I have to admit that some of the vendors did themselves no favors by turning in less than stellar demos:

  • Linkable Networks, which claimed that it can bring SKU-level data to improve targeted marketing efforts didn’t show that capability.
  • Truaxis, who I believe will help create new revenue streams for banks and credit unions, chose to highlight customer profitability analysis and campaign management functionality.
  • Banno‘s mobile app helps consumers make smarter financial decisions at the point of sale, but the demo started off by highlighting mobile banking and bill pay features (ho hum), and suffered from a glitch.

So maybe these firms didn’t deserve best in show for not telling their stories well, or for telling the wrong stories.

Other firms did respectable jobs with their demos, but didn’t get the respect they deserved:

  • Finovera and Manilla (did they present? I missed part of the afternoon day 2 session and didn’t see a score from BI) are creating a whole new space — bill management — that could create huge economic benefits for billers and added conveniences for consumers. So why the low profit potemtial from BI?
  • Personal Capital rated a B in profit potential from BI, but didn’t seem to be on anyone’s best in show list. Really? A 401(k) with a 0.5% could revolutionize that market (which I would argue has been more detrimental to the financial health of US consumers than any retail bank or mortgage provider). In my book, the innovation and profit potential of Personal Capital is huge.

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Ironically, perhaps, Personal Capital did win a best in show award in 2011 when it showed its online investing platform. So it wins for its great UI, but not for its new business innovation.

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Past winners of best in show at Finovate have include 7-time winner (I don’t know, I’ve lost count) Mint.com, which, of course, has revolutionized the financial services industry with its disruptive technology.

That was a joke. You’re laughing, right?

Mint.com might have 10 gazillion users (they gain users faster than McDonald’s sells hamburgers), but it’s hard for me to believe that the PFM platform has had a big impact on the industry. PFM adoption is still about 20% across US consumers, and I can’t point to a single financial services exec who says that Mint.com has helped them gain customers, or believes that they’ve lost customers because of the site. 

What did Finovate attendees see in Mint.com?

Sexy user interface. 

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All this makes me wonder what the composition of Finovate voters really is. I can’t help but think it’s skewed toward the vendors themselves, who sometimes (but not always) get too caught up in the technology, and not the business impact. 

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