Mobile Banking: Financial Institutions Must Clean Up Their Apps

Competitive mobile banking apps have to be fast and convenient. Otherwise consumers will look elsewhere. Beyond speed, apps must be able to accommodate a wide range of user needs. But the good news is that those fixes may help everyone.

Banking apps are notorious for leaning on terminology and thinking that’s understandable only to people who know the business, which doesn’t describe most bank and credit union users.

One of Gina Bhawalkar’s favorite incomprehensibles is the frequent reference that mobile apps make to “ACH transactions.” There is no reason a consumer should be expected to know what that means, says Bhawalkar, Principal Analyst at Forrester. A specialist in customer experience and user experience issues, Bhawalkar earlier spent eight years in financial services, including a stint at Bank of the West as head of customer experience research.

But ACH is just one of many instances of banking app’s high-jargon content. The analyst says that institutions testing a new mobile app or major updates to one should be asking typical banking customers to try them out. Beyond that, they should listen to how they speak about their banking tasks to see why banking apps can sometimes be frustratingly opaque to use.

Consider how people refer to person-to-person payments, which they would no more say than “P2P.”

“They would say, ‘I want to send money to a friend’,” says Bhawalkar. While consumers, especially young people, may say, “I’ll Venmo you” to each other, Bhawalkar says few people will promise to “Zelle you,” even now that the banking industry’s take on P2P has been in operation since June 2017. Despite that, for some time now some major banks’ apps have had a “Zelle button” instead of one that says, functionally, “Pay a friend.”

“Keep it simple,” advises Bhawalkar.

Yet while industry jargon confuses the typical mobile banking user, that is just the beginning of the ways that banks and credit unions erode an app’s potential utility and customer experience quality. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive consumers towards digital alternatives to branches and physical cards, the industry needs to get to work on another key issue: clutter.

Stop Trying to Fit Ten Pounds of Banking into a Five-Pound App

In a report, “The Life-Changing Magic of Simplifying Your Mobile App” — its title inspired by the writings of anti-clutter expert Marie Kondo — Forrester tackled the problem of “kitchen sink” apps. As Bhawalkar explains in an interview with The Financial Brand, typically banking brands attempt to stuff too much into a mobile app. It’s not unlike trying to put everything that a yacht is carrying into its dinghy when someone goes ashore. It’s inconvenient and at best slows down the dinghy — if it doesn’t sink it.

“It’s not feasible to put everything into the mobile app.”
— Gina Bhawalkar, Forrester

“It’s not feasible to put everything into the mobile app,” says Bhawalkar. Many apps are growing fat, she explains, which slows down functionality, makes key features difficult to find, and increases the amount of memory they consume on a user’s device.

Instead, mobile apps should concentrate the most space and visibility on essential functions, identified by consumer usage patterns. Other functions may also be on the app, but not at the top, and some functions make more sense to remain on the institution’s website. When someone wants to access, say, to the institution’s financial literacy pages, the app can send the user to the mobile version of the website, while informing the user that they are leaving the app.

Overall, Forrester recommends that the emphasis should be on convenience for those top-ranking tasks, with a structure that makes it easy to find the functions and to navigate around the app. Forrester believes that a good rule of thumb is that consumers shouldn’t have to delve more than two layers beyond the home screen to be able to perform top-ranked tasks. More specifically, the report suggests that viewing balances and recent transactions shouldn’t be more than one layer away from the home screen.

In addition, the report recommends that apps skip the preliminaries — when a menu or a button takes someone to a new function, they should be right into it, not at an introductory page.

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Stick to App Conventions that Users Expect to See

Increasingly there are norms to follow that enable app designers to follow a common scheme for structure and design, right down to the types of buttons used for various functions. A key element of this is Google Material, a design language the web giant launched in 2014.

“Adhering to these established design patterns is important,” says Bhawalkar. She adds that standards like Google Material are comparatively new and mark a departure from the innovative design ideas of individuals, such as Apple’s Steve Jobs, in shaping the look and feel of apps. With approaches to design basics more standardized and shared, she elaborates, designers will tend to spend more time on new mobile challenges.

Digital banking leaders often complained that their efforts are roped in by requirements imposed by Compliance and Legal. Bhawalkar doesn’t buy this.

“Yes, design of apps is more challenging for banking institutions,” she acknowledges. “There are more stakeholders to be satisfied.”

However, such requirements can actually produce better results for the institution. Bhawalkar notes that Monzo, the U.K. digital bank, revamped its electronic terms and conditions to be much clearer. The entire document runs to under 1,500 words and is written to be understandable to an 11-year-old.

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Listen to the Voice of the Consumer — All Consumers

“When designing apps, you have to incorporate consumer input into the process,” says Bhawalkar. This includes front-end usability testing before an app hits the streets, but also reaction to problems flagged in the public comments on the App Store and on Google Play for both the organization’s own app as well as those of competitors.

However, Bhawalkar urges that banks and credit unions not stop there. She is a strong advocate for providing accessibility for users who must overcome disabilities to use apps.

She makes the point that this includes physical and mental issues beyond blindness and hearing problems. It can include reading and cognitive issues, for example. In an earlier report she describes the troubles of a woman named “Abigail.”

Abigail had received a major brain injury in a car accident and she had trouble whenever confronted with too many choices. One financial provider gave website users multiple options before presenting the appropriate phone number to call for certain types of problems. Abigail couldn’t make it to that point. By contrast, Bhawalkar noted in her report, another institution made contact phone numbers available at a much earlier stage, without as much navigation required.

Bhawalkar also points out that extraneous material can make it hard for aids like screen readers to function properly.

However, by working with consumers who have disabilities, sometimes features can be devised that appeal to many other consumers as well. Bhawalkar says she found that giving people the option of hearing documentation instead of having to read it can be popular. The Monzo terms and conditions can be heard, for example. (A nonprofit group that can assist with such app evaluations that Forrester cited in a report is Knowbility, which maintains tester panels as well as an annual event, Virtual AccessU.)

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‘Inclusive Design’ can Improve Digital Channels for Everyone

While such efforts may begin in an effort to avoid lawsuits over lack of accessibility to digital services — Forrester says companies were the targets of over 2,000 such suits in 2019 alone — Bhawalkar says institutions’ efforts can pay off for all users. This is called the “curb cut effect,” she says, a term arising from the origination of curb cuts to make it easier for wheelchair users to enter a sidewalk. The curb cuts were welcomed by others as well.

Related to accessibility are efforts to incorporate “inclusive design” into apps and other digital services. This begins with elimination of jargon and provisions for people who are not native English speakers and goes through to such factors as page color and typography to maximize readability for users with sight issues.

“The pandemic has started more conversations around this theme,” says Bhawalkar.

To meet such needs additional coding may be required. Automated testing tools may also be required to run all functions through appropriate evaluations. And third-party training in accessibility issues is often needed to help prepare designers to think in these terms, according to Bhawalkar.

Naturally, incorporating all of these additional considerations into mobile banking app design can lead to many options. Bhawalkar says it is important to keep the consumers’ top tasks in mind when deciding what to prioritize for improvement.

“Getting the balance right,” she says, “does not mean prioritizing what matters to the loudest voice in the room.”

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