Supporting Digital-First Banking Models with the Right Website Strategy

For consumers, ease of use of your institution's website can be a make or break experience. A UX fundamental that too often is overlooked is site navigation. Here are specific suggestions for making your site one that other financial institutions will want to copy.

Without a doubt more consumers spent more time on financial institution websites during the pandemic stay-at-home period than ever before. They had a lot more exposure and time to see the good and bad of website design and logic. Improving an institution’s site experience should be a top priority for marketers and digital strategists.

Website experience has many aspects, but one of the biggest challenges financial institutions face is how to improve site navigation. As the primary means of accomplishing a goal, site navigation underscores the user experience. Surprisingly, there is no industry standard approach for high-level navigation strategy. This realization should free you up to do what’s right for your end users and your financial institution.

Whether creating a new website or refreshing an established one, banks and credit unions should follow the same guiding principles for determining the navigation approach that will work best for users and create scalability as the site evolves. This article presents these principles along with specific examples.

Site navigation brings together both the “global” and “main” navigation, typically found in the top header area of the site in the form of links and menus, as well as buttons and tools. Often, financial marketers and digital strategists are tasked with re-examining high-level navigation strategy when updating a current website or undertaking a full redesign. In some cases, the navigation must be created from scratch.

Think Like a Consumer, Not Like an Institution

The prevailing thought when devising site navigation (and, frankly, the entire consumer-facing website strategy) should be: “Service our end user.” This means consider the needs of your customer first, with the needs of your institution a close second.

Seems obvious, right? However, this way of thinking could be a bit of a paradigm shift for your institution because we are creatures of habit. You might find resistance from key stakeholders from different business lines who insist on labelling things a certain way, because “That’s how we refer to these things internally” or “We’ve always done it this way” or “This is how we choose to package our products.”

“Avoid banking jargon in your menus and settle on the type of terms exchanged on a customer service call instead.”
— Chris Rinaldi, ZAG Interactive

The way your institution refers, labels or groups its products and services internally, however, may not align entirely with how the average consumer interprets or interacts with your banking solutions. For example, your internal team might refer to savings and checking as “deposit accounts,” while consumers may want to discover how to “save” or “spend” their money. Some of the same principles of keyword research for search engine optimization (SEO) can be applied to your navigation. You want your menus and links to be labeled in a familiar manner that clicks with your target audience. Avoid the banking jargon from the boardroom and settle on the type of terms exchanged on a customer service call instead.

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Make Your Decisions Based on Research

Regardless of your starting point, the site navigation strategy should be influenced by what has already been known to work and what you can learn from consumers. For site redesigns, your existing website statistics can provide invaluable information on how users are interacting with your current navigation and site search feature.

By reviewing your site analytics, you will uncover opportunities for improvement with your navigation. Look for unintended drop-off points and highly trafficked links that can be optimized with your new navigation.

You may also want to conduct a website survey to gain feedback from your users on how they feel about your site, including functionality. Before going live with new navigation, usability testing in-person or online will allow real-life users — ideally actual customers — to try out a new menu design.

See what other financial institutions are doing as well, including direct competitors, industry leaders and banks and credit unions with award-winning or well-received sites. There is no shame in borrowing an approach from other sites — within and even outside of the banking industry — and making it your own. Chances are that others will be stealing the good ideas from your site navigation too, if you do it right.

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Get Into Global Navigation

Global navigation is the region in the top header area of all pages on your website that includes the most important links, buttons, search bars and often login boxes or other functional elements that allow users to move from one set of site content to another. Sometimes known as “comfort navigation,” the global navigation is intended to provide the user with easy and consistent access to common, useful pages and site functionality.

Global navigation answers the question, “What webpages or online applications do our power users look for first?” One way to go about determining your global navigation strategy is to reserve it for items that are more important than what might be found in the site footer links, but not as in-depth as your main navigation menu items. Think of global navigation in terms of what your users will want to click on early and often without having to hunt around the site.

Best practices:

  • Aim for no more than five links to avoid clutter.
  • Reserve for the most helpful or popular pages (e.g., Rates, Locations, Contact).
  • Consider a drop-down of quick links to save space and time.
  • Insert the search field here for easy access.
  • Leave room for a prominent online banking login.

Do not get carried away with adding lots of links to your global nav, as you are aiming for just a handful of the most important ones to make for economical use of space. Anything that feels left out can go in the site footer and should also be accessible within the main navigation.

Global navigation example

Your global navigation must also align with your institution’s business goals and marketing objectives. A credit union that emphasizes benefits of membership over superior rates, might opt for “Membership” in its global navigation instead of “Rates.” On the other hand a bank that offers a lot of valuable content but prefers not to focus on its background could swap out “About” for “Blog.”

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Master the Main Navigation

The main navigation is typically found in the top header area, which displays the top-level pages of your site’s structure. These menu items represent the main sections of pages that fall just below the home page in hierarchy. They provide the user with access to the next level or two of internal pages within the site. The main navigation opens to reveal a larger menu of page links organized intuitively for your user to drill-down to anywhere in the site in a couple of clicks or less.

The most tried and true main navigation menu for desktop viewing of financial sites is the drop-down mega menu. The mega menu works well, because it offers enough real estate for internal page links, related promotions and buttons, while translating well for users on handheld devices. Some bank and credit union sites today are adopting the “hamburger” menu approach (the small hamburger-like group of horizontal bars), which emulates the mobile experience by providing a more streamlined, stacked menu. Whatever the delivery mechanism, the strategy behind your main navigation should be to organize your institution’s products and services into logical, user-centric buckets to aid the user experience.

Best practices:

  • Limit to no more than six menu items for scalability.
  • Organize into your institution’s major offerings.
  • Label the menu items intuitively for your consumers.
  • Adhere to parallel structure to assist with usability.
  • Use non-clickable headings for additional organization within the menu.

By keeping the number of main navigation menu items low you allow your users to focus on the available items and give your navigation room to grow with your institution’s offerings.

The first step is to put your institution’s products into major buckets, which can include checking, savings, loans, mortgages, investments, insurance, digital banking, and more. Next, group together website-specific offerings, which might be online banking, mobile banking, resources, education, etc. Take a step back and see what could and should be combined to better assist users. For example, checking and savings could both fall under the same bucket, just as loans and mortgages, investments and insurance, as well as online and mobile banking.

As you consider cuts and consolidations, factor in the scalability of your navigation, thinking about areas of your banking business that might be expanding soon, along with your site expansion plans. Find commonality to get your main navigation down to four-to-six major buckets, then turn your attention to the actual labeling.

Business line main navigation example

For institutions that offer both personal and business banking, the business-line main navigation approach allows users to select a suite of products and services right from the start. This convention is flexible to accommodate an institutional priority, such as community involvement, while being scalable enough to tack on another business line, like Commercial as offerings expand.

Product based main navigation example

Ideal for institutions that have a legacy of site redesigns with a similar major menu labels or an older banking demographic, product-based main navigation never goes out of style. This classic system lends itself really well to combining and/or splitting major buckets based on user needs and institutional priorities.

Action oriented main navigation

A trendier choice, the action-oriented main navigation is a contemporary convention intended to make the user select what he or she is looking to accomplish. Credit unions can get around the sensitivities of using “Bank” as a major menu item by splitting it into “Spend” and “Save.” You can mitigate the verb-based labels with descriptive headings and traditional links within the expanded menu.

Whichever way you choose, stick with the same established convention if at all possible. Understand that these top-level menu items are not the end-all, be-all. You just need your label to be descriptive enough for your user to click for more. The bottom line is for your main navigation make enough sense to your consumer to drill down deeper.

Take your time to get it right and find comfort in knowing that you can always measure, monitor and adjust along the way. Furthermore, while high-level navigation is the main way users get around your site, but it is not the only way. A well-constructed site will have multiple touchpoints for users to get to the same desired destinations, including interactive tools, self-directed pathways, promotional areas, cross-sell opportunities, banded content, in-page navigation, and many more stops along the sales funnel.

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