M.S. Kirkpatrick
Jun 20, 2019 · 7 min read

Retail Banks, should it be so hard to become your customer?

Opening a new bank account can be a rite of passage for many young consumers who join the working world. Some already have accounts opened by their parents but with an independent spirit and newfound freedom, most decide to open an account on their own for direct deposit of their payroll check and access to the banking system for bill pay and other conveniences.

This access isn’t always cheap, some of you are charging $12 bucks or more a month for this access. That’s on par with HBO GO or Amazon Prime — subscriptions that deliver much joy for those bucks. And while there’s no way you’ll ever deliver the same joy as Hulu, Netflix or other fun stuff for that money — shouldn’t it be at least very easy to sign up?

I surveyed a handful of bank account sign-ups and found some really common pitfalls with simple fixes that would make capturing these consumers far easier and start relationships in a much better way. By the way, it’s estimated that 40% of consumers abandon this process once they start. We can do better than that with simple UX and UI best practice.

For this exercise, I surveyed 7 banks, 4 large national brands, 1 digital only player, 1 credit union and 1 local regional player (MA based). I found some trends, patterns and have some tips all for experience improvements that can be made today without an overhaul to the IT tangle. A lot of them come down to best practices of human-centered design — that is building the product (the online application) around how the user thinks, feels and acts and their wants and needs — not how the financial products or the bank works.

Product-centric or feature-centric design is a common folly and one I saw in full display. This is where experiences cater to the way the organization works, or because of a legacy process or technology. Risk and compliance can also be rationale for bad user experience. You don’t need to drive risk to zero, it’s impossible to do that — right? Challenge that thinking and take the right balanced approach to achieve compliance without torturing new customers.

Here are some of the findings and food for thought in reviewing a handful of account-opening experiences.

1. Watch the language.

In many cases the language used is very “banky”, and not very welcoming. Product names are often the worst offenders and not at all consumer-centric. Here’s a short roster of products I had to choose from:

Total Checking

One Deposit Checking

Platinum Checking

Platinum Plus Checking

Premier Plus Checking

Gold Star Checking

Star Checking

Free Checking (that one sounds good actually…)

With product names, banking is taking a page from Health Insurance which has notoriously opaque names for healthcare plans. Health Insurance isn’t often a source for experience-based inspiration and shouldn’t be here either. At Mad*Pow, our research has shown this opacity reinforces the distance between you and your customers which impacts loyalty. When you speak a different language, it does not foster trust (which starts with mutual understanding).

There was one exception with product language specifically, the digital-only player asked how I plan to use my account. Online Savings? Interest Checking? It’s not perfect but a much more, “me-centric” way of asking! Thank you. I know products need names but why not focus on my needs and you figure out whatever product that translates to? Remember be customer-centric, not product-centric.

2. Just because you want to know, doesn’t mean you should ask.

Some of you ask me for employer information (skip tracing?) some didn’t, How do I plan to use the account? One bank asked me 4 questions about how I plan to use the account…

What’s the average monthly value of your total deposit transactions?

What’s the expected value of your total cash deposits?

What’s the average monthly value of your total withdrawal transactions?

What’s the average monthly value of your total cash withdrawals?

Come on. It is like I want to date your daughter and you’re asking me how many kids we’re going to have, where we plan to live and where we’ll send the kids to college. It’s a turn off and makes me want to run away. If you’re using this information to tailor the experience or product options I’ll see later, that’s great. Honestly. Just don’t put this in front of the already arduous sign-up process. You don’t need to know everything now. Let me sign up and get this information later, maybe a little at a time if I end up calling or visiting a branch.

There was also this:

You: “What is the purpose of the entire client relationship?”

Me: Puzzled. Thinking and unsure how to answer, “I need a checking account.” Open dropdown… Choose “Basic Banking”

You: “What products are you anticipating using?”

Me: Thinking, “??? I don’t know but can we just open the hypothetical account already?”

This felt a little like I was at the border being asked for my papers. Please resist the urge to gather copious data that serves you but adds pain to an already painful exercise and risks feeling a little cold and unfriendly. I’ll be a great customer if you respect my experience. Let’s talk about this stuff later.

Be wise about the questions you ask and challenge your banking colleagues in the name of customer experience. Every question you add decreases the chances of completion. Questions need to prove themselves in, not be proven out of the experience flow — Ask “why” not “why not”.

3. Anticipate the issues and design for them.

I really tried to open these accounts which means I went all the way through the process including providing funding. In every case I was denied, which I thought was odd. I was looking forward to digging deeper by using each of the respective bank apps. Bummer. Did I get my driver’s license number wrong? I screw that up sometimes…. Then I went to the pure digital bank and at the beginning of the process was asked, “Do you have a freeze on your credit?” “Ahh… yes. I do.”, I thought. I was able to first suspend the freeze, then work the application process to completion.

Anticipatory design has a lot of facets and at its finest can deliver real “delight moments” (as agency people say) through simple utility. As your “signer uppers” move from one section to another, try to anticipate what they may be asking themselves or an answer to a question based on something prior. For example, on one bank’s application I chose to fund by credit card — I plugged in my number, no problem. Next question I was asked was “Card Network”. This broke like three rules at once. “What’s this want?”, I thought. I opened the dropdown menu to see “Mastercard, Visa, Amex”. “Wait, can’t they derive this from the number I provided?” (yes) The trifecta here was the use of dropdown menus which hid the potential answers from me.

Other User Experience and User Interface madness you can learn from…

  • Why don’t you all of you use the number pad for numerical data collection! Not helpful to have QWERTY for my date of birth or SSN is it? So easy.
  • Dropdown menus or dropdowns are almost always a bad UI choice — especially on mobile. Why? All the options are hidden. Many of you make them even worse by having the default option as “choose one” providing no sense for the family of answers contained within. Try to avoid dropdowns. If you must use them, try to make it clear what’s in them so I can mentally have the answer ready for scanning when I open up and see a long list of things to choose from.
  • One bank listed Service Fees: “$25 or $0”- this is presumably the result of optional minimum balance requirements but it’s an odd way to display this to a consumer who’s wondering, “How much are fees?” Should be more intuitive.
  • I was curious about my account’s interest rate, it was listed on one bank as “Earns Interest (see rates)” The “see rates” link sent me to a page that included general rates for every product offered by the bank. Like a brochure on interest. Why not just tell me what I earn!? I give up. Be easier, please.

Readers here know, opening a new checking account isn’t the path to sudden profitability for the bank. On average most banks lose money on a single checking account relationship. However, the hope here is that this will begin a relationship that goes multi-product as consumers needs change and grow over time. This sets the stage for the relationship you hope to deepen.

Banks would love to deliver checking, savings, a loan for your new car, your mortgage. The challenge in today’s digital age is that these products have largely become commoditized, with little differentiation. Therefore, these products need to be packaged with other items of value, and many banks are trying to figure that out. This is the experience economy, so much of that value can come in the form of a great customer experience — one that is highly personalized, meets me where I am and provides me with the advice I need not sales driven BS. If you’re committed to this ethos, start with the account opening and go from there.

Quick wins, folks. Experience matters.

M.S. Kirkpatrick

Written by

Design, UX, Financial Services — I work @MadPow and head up Client Experience and the Financial Services practice.

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