Forrester: Bank mobile apps frustrating, confusing

Mobile banking should be effortless, but Forrester Research says far too many banks offer frustrating apps and give little thought to how consumers should interact with their financial institutions.

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Mobile banking should be effortless, with financial institutions sharing data, offering helpful suggestions and automating frequent tasks. But according to a new report from Forrester Research on mobile banking apps, far too many banks offer frustrating apps that show little thought given to how consumers interact with their financial institutions — or at least how they should.

"Banks too often send customers to separate apps or web pages to view content. These experiences, which are often inconsistent with the main app, can feel disjointed and confusing for the customer," said the report. "Menus disappear or compete with each other, names and icons have multiple meanings, or links take the customer out of the app without warning."

One key example, noted lead author and Forrester senior analyst Peter Wannemacher, is alerts/messaging. Chase, for instance, marks its app icon on users' devices with a red number indicating how many messages are unread, but it is unclear where the messages are. Are they in "View Alerts"? The "Secure Message Center"? Even worse, users tend to expect the "alerts" to be on critical matters — a potential fraud action or an especially large withdrawal — but they are often actually about mundane matters, such as flagging that the regular monthly statement has been mailed. Alert fatigue quickly sets in.

Not so serendipitously, as I was writing this column, I received an alert from Chase. It showed one message in "View Alerts." I clicked on "View Alerts." It displayed a list of various accounts and payment cards, but it gave no indication of where the message was. I clicked on several and didn't find anything new. The alert notification then disappeared. Oh well. I hope it wasn't anything important.

"I literally use Chase as an example of how not to do that alert experience," Wannemacher said in a Computerworld interview. "It's very bad for the customer to have alerts that are all over the place."

Wannemacher added, "Alerts are powerful drivers of engagement that every bank wants." I would quibble and say that that sentence needs to be modified to, "When done properly, alerts are powerful drivers of engagement that every bank wants." Done improperly, they can anger and confuse customers and ultimately cause them to cut back on engagement. In short, waste your customers' time at your own peril.

"Today, millions of US banking customers use apps to manage their money, yet these experiences rarely evoke positive emotions — some are frustrating and negative, while others are simply neutral and utilitarian," the report said. Forrester did find "a few glimpses of how banks can evoke positive emotions: For example, Wells Fargo provides in-line guidance on how to avoid service fees directly within the transaction list."

Typically, these mobile content issues are dictated by various product business units or marketing. But Wannemacher makes an argument that IT — and sometimes security and compliance people — must get more involved in the process. Referencing missing elements in some of these apps, Wannemacher said that "the IT folks, they have a role to make sure it's there. We talk about grabbing the steering wheel if no one else will."

In fintech discussions today, most argue that mobile apps need to go far beyond making existing banking tasks easier. The apps must take the next step and make consumer financial lives better. Bots, for example, can propose a budget based on a history of a consumer's activities and then actively help the consumer stick with the budget. For example, when the phone detects that the consumer has walked into a favorite retailer or restaurant, it can issue an alert along the lines of, "You have $35 remaining in this month's clothing budget line and you have 19 days left this month. It also looks like you're in a Target, and you have typically spent $40 on each shopping trip."

Or it might proactively help with savings, by saying something such as, "It looks like you can make a $50 investment in your savings account. May I move the money now?"

Wannemacher saw search as a critical area where banking apps tend to fall short — and there is no easy fix. "There is a ton of integration work for search to work well," he said.

Another two areas where Wannemacher saw shortfalls with bank mobile apps were security — where banks should do quite well, since they understand security quite well — and privacy, where banks should be horrible, since they see data acquisition as a critical part of their survival and growth strategy.

Speaking about security, Wannemacher said the problem was not in the apps' security per se as much as in banks' efforts to make customers aware of security mechanisms already in place. This is where banks have to wrestle with the same security conundrum that all businesses face: On the one hand, they want to shout about all of the security that they have in place. On the other hand, customers generally don't want to read about it. When banks display their security measures — by frequently requesting passwords, asking for biometric authentication, providing a USB fob for onetime authentication (which won't work for most mobile applications) — customers dislike the friction that is added to the experience. When banks push top-level authentication that has relatively little friction (such as behavioral analytics, where the app detects how the phone is being held and the typing speed and precise geolocation and uses that to try and find fraudsters), it works well, but the customers wonder if their money is being held securely. Yes, I know: it's hard to win either way.

For privacy, Wannemacher said that banks must make the options for customers to change their data-sharing permissions easy to find and to manage. "It's almost always poorly delivered to the customer," he said. "I think these will be egregious failures if they are not solved within a few years."

In the report's research, Wannemacher's team did find some bank apps — or at least apps that had good parts:

  • USAA: "Although it has not made major changes to its app in the past year, USAA remains the US leader in mobile banking experiences, with a wide range of useful features and good UX design. USAA leads in five areas of mobile banking — login and security alerts, money management, money movement, assisted service features, and content — more categories than any other U.S. bank we reviewed."
  • Bank of America: "The Bank of America has steadily improved its app over the past year, earning the second-highest overall score and narrowing the gap with USAA. Bank of America leads in three areas: marketing and sales, privacy and security cues and content, and self-service features. There is no category of our review where Bank of America falls far short of customer expectations — something no other US bank achieved.8 At the heart of its mobile app sits Erica, the bank’s in-app chatbot that acts as a search mechanism, a proactive guide for the customer, and a curator of personalized insights about the customer’s spending and financial life."
  • Chase, Chime, Citi, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo: "Each demonstrates some best practices. Chime leads in search and navigation,with sticky screen headers, a persistent bottom navigation bar that guides customers to key task flows, and calls to action that are clear and conversational rather than written in bank speak. Wells Fargo helps customers see and manage upcoming transfers, letting them easily view, cancel, or even amend a future-dated account transfer. Citi’s app nails best practices for content — it is useful, easy to read thanks to strong visual design choices, and easy to understand. Chase, meanwhile, has implemented Zelle P2P payments in a way that makes it easy for customers: The Chase app can group multiple emails and phone numbers for a single Zelle contact."

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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