Australia's major banks all agree that mobile phones and tablets will account for an ever-increasing share of customer activity. Given that, why do they continue to make such a dog's breakfast of actually developing decent apps?
In the past month or so, I've been to app launches for Commonwealth Bank, Westpac and NAB. (An invite from ANZ surely can't be far away.) At every single event, the message has been the same: a huge percentage of customers access online banking services using their phones. At Westpac, for instance, mobiles account for one-third of online access, and those numbers are continuing to grow.
In those circumstances, it makes sense that banks are paying increasing attention to building mobile-friendly sites and platform-specific apps to access online banking services. It's often said around here that rather than wasting time on individual apps for iOS and Android and all the rest, banks would be better off building good mobile sites that would work on multiple platforms. For their part, the banks argue that customers prefer the app experience. At NAB, 80 per cent of mobile access is through its native apps for iOS and Android.
That's all well and good, but I'm finding there's an increasing gap between the "mobile is the future" mantra and the stupid design decisions evident in many of these apps. Here are five that stick out for me.
5. Apps that do less than their predecessors
Step forward Westpac. The standout feature of its recently-launched iPad app is that it does substantially less than the general iOS app that came before it. For many options (such as adding billers), you still need to sign into the mobile browser. It's really hard to see why anyone would bother with this app.
4. Apps that are little more than a browser shell
The new NAB Windows Phone 7 app (announced yesterday and due in Marketplace next week) falls squarely into this category. It has a shiny Metro-styled front end for finding branches or checking foreign exchange rates, but when you actually start looking at balances and account information, you're right back in a browser screen and no-one would think for a second you were actually using a WP7 app. I appreciate that it's the first release, but if you're going to bother developing for Windows Phone at all, you should make it look native. NAB was guilty of similar crimes with its first Android apps. A browser shortcut does not make a good basis for an app.
3. Apps that don't look like they're built for the platform
When the Commonwealth Bank first promised an Android version of its Kaching payments app, it pledged to make sure it looked like a native Android app. "The way to win in this space is to take care of the tiny details," CommBank's David Lindberg proclaimed. When it actually emerged, the exact opposite had happened: it was a clone of the iOS version. This is not the way to win the hearts of Android users.
2. Botched NFC plans
Near-field communications (NFC) should make it easy to pay for everyday items via contactless readers, but we've yet to see any convincing implementation for Australians. The Commonwealth Bank offers the option through a special iCarte reader for iPhone users, but there's a notable failure rate and retailers don't seem to have been trained on the platform at all. NFC is built into more modern Android phones, but the iPhone-copy-Android software won't use it, a situation the bank blames on not being able to access the relevant security features.
1. Security systems that make life stupidly hard
Many banks (including the Commonwealth and NAB) let you use a four-digit passcode for access to mobile apps, rather than needing to type a longer password. That's less secure, but I understand the compromise. However, NAB's security implementation requires that you only ever have one device set up with a passcode: if you try and set up the passcode option on your tablet, it will stop working on your phone, and vice-versa.
The Commonwealth doesn't impose the same restriction as far as I know, perhaps because it imposes two-factor authentication on many activities such as money transfers which makes the passcode on its own less useful. So clearly it's possible to combine convenience and a reasonable level of security. Owning both a tablet and a phone is hardly an uncommon scenario, so NAB's approach comes across as badly-implemented.
Where could your bank do better with its mobile apps? What do you like about what it offers now? Tell us in the comments.