Changing online banking

piggy banks

Photo courtesy of Daniel Y. Go
  Before I moved to Denmark I used HSBC for fifteen years. Their online banking system was adequate initially, and has grown better over time with improvements to its functionality and speed. But its amazing what you take for granted when you are forced to use an alternative.

My bank here in Denmark, though not Danish, is courteous and helpful in the physical world but digitally they are atrocious. Their online banking system is a world apart from HSBC and I can only think its because of an overtly paranoid view of security.

I cannot name the bank, as I would fear some sort of American Airlines sacking, but somebody has made a technical decision which just makes it such an arduous task accessing an account.

To gain access you need to download a Java application, install it within your browser and then download an access key which is unique to the machine. It makes your home pc become something like a bank terminal. Even the interface makes you feel like you are in the mainframe.


One click away from rage

It is proof, if any were needed, that some banks have such a long way to go to actually deliver a service that their customers want and deserve. This is our money after all. Now the thing is I don’t think that it’s only this bank, I know its probably the majority of them. Do a search on Twitter for online banking and you will see some lively comments instantly about a variety of well known names.

The unusual part of this is that vitriol is never far away when you are talking about people trying to access their  money. Passions flair up very quickly unlike many other online interactions. The apparent ease that a customer can interact with their bank and conduct their business through a web browser is actually a situation with many issues. The online bank is a complex place of interaction that is subject to frequent fails – that’s why people are easily annoyed when there is a lapse in customer service, when the basic usability of a system is inadequate and when it appears that the interface is some sort of back office admin panel.

User experience and customer experience are entwined here. That causes real problems because the system needs real staff to support it – it is not stand alone (though it purports to be – by acting like a website).

What needs to happen is to bring trust at the interface, the screen where the bank’s customer interacts with the bank. it is no different from the teller window and yet rather than seeing the human face of a smiling cashier we are faced with rows of numbers, that are bland and confusing.


A different approach

The interface need not, and should not, reflect the banks own internal processes and culture. The place for that is in the headquarters and offices, not in front of the customer. Mint and Wesabe both have capitalized on this gap in the market. The gap in which banks have turned their backs on the customer’s experience and preferred to adopt an IT approach to delivering a system that a customer is expected to work within.

Meanwhile these sites have realized that people need to see their numbers differently to how their bank manager sees them. Not on a spreadsheet but a chart with meaning, a saving scheme with a human name and relevance to them. This is what makes me want to return and use a bank. Show me how my money can work harder, where I can save or invest and do it in a way that is educational and even fun.

My online banking experience at the moment is dull, because I don’t want to use the interface. All I can do is either find a better bank or use Wesabe or Mint to download my transactions and render them in a way that is understandable and useful to me.

Tenets for online banking

There are four areas we can take as tenets for what an online bank should deliver for the customers.

Ensure that from the visual design down to the language used, to the terms and illustrations, every single entity on the page is as clear as possible. This is how it looks , how the user would interact and use the system to ensuring the user understands exactly what is going on in every page. Iconography, help text, customer service contacts, all need explanation and immediacy for the user. The online bank must provide a service and the customer needs to grasp this instantly. Any marketing or jargon that gets in the way is a huge problem to its usefulness.

Whatever the customer wants to do in their accounts enable them to do it – if it is a product being offered. If they want something new make sure it is just a click away. Also show them the holistic view of their money and enable them to drill down into specifics whilst giving them a way to navigate around. Visualizing data that is easy to understand is so important to those people who are turned off by numbers, it allows a deeper comprehension and a better understanding of their financial situation.

Never make a customer download a piece of software to unlock the gate to let them into the bank. A barrier to entry on a system that holds their money is maddening for a user. It must be accessed through a browser and by mobile devices, even the TV. Online banking should be easy and stress free. Downtime may be unavoidable but warnings to customers and active support needs to be employed during these times.

Finally, allow the customers to take control by offering them the tools to manage and create accounts easily. Flexibility in the way they can manage their money will just give them a much more enjoyable banking experience. Akin to being listened to when they have a request and a feeling that something is being done. Showing their figures in real time and allowing the movement and creation of savings all go some way in giving them the feeling that this is their money, their accounts and importantly a bank they want to belong to.

Competitive threat will enforce change

I hope banking will be different soon. One bank will lead the way in defining an experience the others will follow. It hasn’t happened yet because of constraints, politics, the credit crunch, institutionalization and corporate lethargy. But it will change, and with products like Wesabe’s Springboard around, it will be sooner rather than later. 

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