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How the best mobile banking apps get the job done

By Evan Wade / January 6, 2014

How the best (and worst) mobile banking apps get the job done

If someone listed all the ways the Internet has improved our daily lives, online banking — the thing that keeps us from making a 10-minute phone call every time we want to transfer money between accounts — would have to be near the top. Throw mobile devices into the mix and things get even better, but not all mobile banking experiences are created equal.

Whether an app is native or web-based, or comes from a corporate entity or small-town credit union, there’s a lot that goes into creating a fluid, functional environment for banking from phones and tablets. There’s no one way to create the perfect mobile banking app, but a look at existing applications points to several trends among the industry’s top dogs.

What makes an unbeatable UX

A recent Business Insider study claims that one out of every five people on the planet will own a smartphone by the end of 2013. The only number growing faster than the population of mobile users is the amount of programs in each OS’s app store. With the huge amount of software for this growing population to choose from, it’s never been more important to make sure your user experience is flawless. We’ve identified the four most important steps developers and banks need to take when bringing their app to market:

  • Step One: Be bug free – Of the four big user experience nuisances, bugs are the first in need of extermination. Whether it’s a banking app or a mobile game, bugs seem to garner the loudest outcry in an app’s review section.
  • Step Two: Invest in the interface – Next to bugs, a blemished user interface is the easiest way to enrage your fan base. Make sure your app is intuitive enough for a child, but aesthetically appealing enough for an art critic. And whatever you do, don’t make your app an exact ripoff of your website. Mobile devices are capable of doing things your desktop can only dream of. Make sure to take advantage of it.
  • Step Three: Dependable deposits – The public has been clamoring for mobile deposit capabilities since USAA introduced them in 2009. If you’re banking app doesn’t have them, you’re already behind your competition. And if you do include this helpful tool, make sure it works flawlessly. People are very fickle when it comes to mixing their smartphones and finances.
  • Step Four: Log on, log off – Whether it’s a matter of security or battery drain, making it easier for your user to log on and off your app is crucial to mainstream adoption. Make sure your app isn’t wasting too much power if your user isn’t actively using it, and implement a remote log off procedure in case your user misplaces their device.

Good mobile banking apps educate their users

Let’s say you’ve ironed out all the bugs in your mobile banking app and tweaked the UI design to make it a little more user friendly. You may have completed all the grunt work on the back end, but there’s still one very important task lying ahead; you have to make sure your users know how to use the software.

Any developer worth his salt knows user education — be it through a built-in tutorial or intuitive design — is a huge part of a mobile app’s experience. In the world of mobile banking, ensuring your user-base’s knowledge of the product is doubly important.

Fortunately, there’s more than one way to get that particular job done. A design post at Mobile Tuts+ provides eight helpful tips for educating app users. The site doesn’t explicitly mention mobile banking apps, but the tips offered (specifically the ones about help screen overlays and setup wizards) are useful enough to apply to most mobile software.

An article at 52 Weeks of UX entitled “Teach Your Users Well,” also preaches the benefit of in-app education, citing several social media apps for iPhone and their attempts to get users comfortable with their software. Whether you need help figuring out a way to educate your user base or not, making sure your users know their way around your app is clearly a key point when designing mobile banking software.

What apps are doing it right?

Other sources have different ideas on what makes a mobile banking app worth downloading. In their list of the top 10 mobile banking apps, the folks at American Banker list a number of features across a wide variety of financial institutions. They laud the American Express app for offering location-sensitive deals and coupons through its My Offers feature, while giving the Capital One app high marks for letting customers share cash between phones with a quick bump.

U.S. Bank’s mobile offering, an app that has received serious praise from American Banker and users alike, takes a slightly different approach to the value-added proposition offered by most financial service apps. While the app itself is free, as are most of its features, the bank charges 50 cents per check deposited. Even so, it remains one of the highest-rated apps on the Apple App and Google Play Stores, and even the folks behind the Business Banking Review’s Best Technology Initiative award have applauded the company’s commitment to adding new features to its mobile software.

Does your app need geolocation or other high-tech features? It depends on the situation, of course, but U.S. Bank’s app serves as a perfect example of what extra capabilities can do for a financial institution. After all, it’s not often that an app that charges for a generally free feature can still scoop up five-star ratings and awards the way U.S. Bank’s app has.

The future

Smartphones are far from the apex of pocket-sized computing, and the mobile banking industry has been quick to adapt to new technologies as they have come along. Wearables, a tech sector primed to gain mainstream acceptance in the very near future, is one of the major areas of focus.

UK-based Intelligent Environments has created an app for the Pebble smartwatch that allows users to perform basic tasks like balancing their checking accounts with a glance at their wrists, while Spanish Bank Banco Sabadell has already released mobile banking software for the upcoming Google Glass. Features like NFC-based mobile payments are also gaining traction among financial services and tech makers alike.

Banking on mobile

When nearly 90% of American mobile users associate poor app performance with bad feelings toward the brand behind the software, according to a recent Harris Poll, it’s easy to see how important mobile can be in an industry that covets consumer trust the way banking does. Regularly-updated features, stability, reliability and user education are important to consumers, and the best mobile banking apps feature all of them in spades.

Where does your mobile banking app sit in the app store rankings? If it’s dealing with bad reviews and low overall downloads, it may be time to switch things up. And if you’re still developing your mobile app, consider every download another chance to snag a five-star rating and build your software accordingly. Either way, mobile banking should be at the forefront of your organization’s Web plans. If your software lacks that level of focus, your users will let you know about it. Or worse, they might just say goodbye altogether.

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