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Latest News Shock - Internet Banking Usability Sucks!

Forrester says so 

The studious people at Forrester have just released some research that is astonishing.  It’s only available to Forrester subscribers or to purchase – but their teaser says it’s all.

Basically, Internet banking offerings do a pretty good job of offering functionality – they just don’t rate well from a usability perspective. 

How is this possible?  After 16 years of Internet banking, and what must be, for most major banks, generation 3 or 4 of their offering, this is pretty mind-blowing!


Just a US phenomena?

Let’s get the caveats out the way first – the benchmark research is US-only and covers only the six largest banks. 

And yet if we reflect personally on our own experiences, my guess is that at least 7 out of 10 of you out there are nodding in agreement with the US findings.


But Internet Banking is hard – this is surely excusable?

No doubt a defence will be mounted – ‘Internet banking, unlike online retailing, is hard’.  ‘The need for the highest levels of security unfortunately get in the way of usability’ and so on.

I don’t buy it.  Internet Banking actually isn’t that hard.  Frankly, the scope of even the most complex and advanced Internet banking offerings is dwarfed by the functional and technical complexity of say, online travel management sites or retail sites that allow you to visualise goods in different colours or fabrics, order, bill, charge, integrate with stock management and shipping solutions and so on.

Security in online banking is obviously important – but it need not be intrusive.  Two-factor authentication on login and even re-authentication for certain high-value, high-risk transactions might be a minor inconvenience, but nothing more.  Other forms of security like SSL are completely unobtrusive.

What Forrester is talking about are fundamental issues in presentation and navigation.  This is website design 101 folks!

So, if it is that basic, it will be pretty simple to fix, surely?  You’d have thought so – A small team of UX (user experience) specialists, some real world customer testing, a team of high-grade technical staff to implement changes, more time for testing, perhaps roll out to a beta group.  Not cheap and not quick but definitely doable in 6-9 months. 


What’s the real problem?

Will it change any time soon?  I’m doubtful.  And while I accept that banks have built fairly unwieldy platforms that resist change, and that channel support teams and budgets are stretched; I don’t think this is the real problem.  The real problem is the way banks think of their customers.  (I maintain this is true for the most part – run with the generalization for a while – you can freely comment your exceptions later!).

Banks treat customers as captive.  Retailers treat customers as transient.  It creates a completely different mindset and ‘worldview’. 

Think about it for a moment – you are a ‘customer’ of a supermarket only when you have a trolley full of goodies and are standing at the checkout.  Any other time, you are a potential customer and you’re spoilt for choice. 

If Amazon had stopped at ‘yup, you can buy books online now’ I suspect they’d have lasted a few months.  What Amazon focused on was – ‘how can we make this the best book buying experience ever, not just online, but anywhere’.  No surprise that Amazon doesn’t just sell books these days.


What’s the solution?

Of course, bank customers are more captive, no question (although arguably this is changing, albeit slowly – I’ll cover this in a future blog). 

In my opinion, our Internet banking experience will only improve when banks start to think differently about their customers, about how valuable our time is, about how little time we want to spend managing our finances, and about how transient we could be.  In all honesty, if they started to reflect more on the fact that most people have a ‘relationship’ with a bank out of necessity rather than choice, it would be a good place to re-baseline.

Banks need to stop thinking of Internet banking as an ‘alternative channel’.  For many of us, the Internet is our primary channel and the branch is an alternative.  For the next generation of customers, the currently unbanked, this is even truer.

So, poor navigation and presentation are symptoms rather than the cause of the malaise in Internet banking.  Banks need to re-think the customer proposition and focus on building ‘best ever’ experiences, because in less than a generation there won’t be such a thing as a multi-channel financial institution whose Internet channel sucks.



Comments: (4)

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 28 January, 2011, 12:19Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Based on my experience of building few online sites for banks in business side, the biggest resistance comes from different silos inside bank.

Real example; one project where we designed and tested new online bank. We asked test customers to make own transfer between their two own accounts. Most of the customers went to accounts section to make transfer. It was not there, it was in Payment section. When asked why they went to Accounts part? Most popular answer was because if I want to drag and drop money from my accounts, it has to be there. 

So we asked different departments to change this service to another place, where most of the customer thought it would be. But Payment unit and Account unit didn't agree, cos' it has been like this always.

Think about supermarket, where you usually find chips? Most of the cases where they sell soda and beer. That where logic says it should be, not with cereal or wheat.

Same project, we wanted to have transfer between fx-account and normal Euro account. We wanted to make it as part of own transfer, which could be real time with some earning for money every time when money trade was made. But our fx-department said it belongs to FX-payments. Hmm... I never thought that money from my dollar account can be converted to euro when I make payment from my dollar account to my own euro account. It took few days. Easier would take money from branch and return it back to branch in different currency.

This Forrester study seems to be true even with smaller banks.

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones - Ubiquiem - London 29 January, 2011, 20:19Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Atti, your real-world experiences echo mine.  Your example of the transfer/payments location is a great one - ostensibly a usability issue, easily solved technically - but the real issue is the organisational thinking, structure and culture.  

Not very customer centric by any definition!  Even these problems can be solved - but probably not by bankers.

Keith Appleyard
Keith Appleyard - available for hire - Bromley 31 January, 2011, 09:01Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

My Bank (Royal Bank Scotland) only allows you to register a Payee Bank Account once. So where I have to pay the Electricity Bill for 3 properties, each with their own separate Utility Account Reference number, I have to use the Card Reader twice over to change the Reference field in order to pay each Property. Is the same for multiple anything else, like 2 Businesses wanting to pay HMRC Income Tax, Business Rates etc.

I've written to RBS asking why they can't support duplicate Payee Accounts, and got no response.

Does anyone know of a UK Bank that does support multiple Payee entries - I might be interested in moving!

Ketharaman Swaminathan
Ketharaman Swaminathan - GTM360 Marketing Solutions - Pune 31 January, 2011, 11:44Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes


I agree with your root cause analysis, namely, that "banks treat customers as captive". This assumption by banks has traditionally been true because closing down one bank account and opening another is not as simple as switching to another e-tailer. However, when constantly faced with problems, customers are increasingly choosing to do more business with other banks, thus lowering revenue per account for their primary banks. This is something I've pointed out in one of my blog posts:

With the likes of Forrester now weighing in on this subject, we might hopefully see some concreate improvements from banks around usability and friction of their Internet Banking applications.  

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