User Friendly e-Banking

25th April 2004

This article discusses the importance of usability within the e-Banking sector and identifies common usability problems and ways to resolve them.

Imagine if you discovered that half of potential customers to your bank’s branches give up when applying for products because it is too difficult or confusing. Alarm bells would be ringing in the customer services department and a team would be dispatched to investigate and rectify the situation ASAP, wouldn’t there?

Yet this scale of lost business happens daily at many online banks due to poor usability of their websites. Research shows that 50% of prospective customers registering for online banking bail out before signing up, mostly due to problems navigating the site, completing online forms, security fears, and understanding content and feedback.

Web usability is the extent to which users can perform their tasks effectively, efficiently and with satisfaction. Based on the principles of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), web usability has become a recognised success factor for all e-business, including online banking. Users most enjoy those sites that provide clear information, easy navigation and an engaging customer experience. After the initial flush of design-led sites, businesses realised that the best way to profit online is to create sites that users can understand, and use effectively.

Typical online banking usability problems

In its widest sense, online banking consists of three main parts: the ‘brochureware’ marketing pages, the online application, and the transactional banking area. All can provide poor customer experiences:

  • inconsistent navigation and page layouts
  • on-site search engines that don’t find, even when it is available
  • bank-oriented jargon that is not explained
  • poor feedback using interactive tools and forms
  • inability to save an application and complete it later
  • too many steps in transactions and no visibility of progress
  • unhelpful error messages
  • pages that are inaccessible to customers who are blind or disabled

These usability and accessibility barriers are not only frustrating for online customers, they are very expensive for banks.

Error messages are critical for online applicants. The example shown below occurs when a user has entered amounts using commas. The user is reprimanded by an error message telling them there are problems because they used decimal places, which is not the case. Such usability problems cause users to lose confidence in the process and the bank, and many abandon the process.

In addition to the high drop out rate in online applications, Forrester Research found that one in nine people who have tried online banking in the UK gave up because of poor usability or security concerns. As more people consider banking online in this highly competitive marketplace, the online customer experience has become a crucial differentiator.

What can be done to improve usability and stem the flow of these losses? The most important change is the need to apply user-centred design methods such as task analysis and iterative rounds of usability testing.

Put it to the test

One of the best ways to improve your site’s usability is to watch your customer use it. Usability testing involves asking some representative users to perform tasks following a scenario such as applying online, learning about product features, or performing banking transactions. As the user describes what they are doing and their impressions of the site, the usability expert observes, and only intervenes when necessary to clarify what the subject is doing. In addition to showing whether users could perform the tasks, usability testing provides rich insights on what parts of the site the user finds difficult or confusing.

Profiting from usability improvements

Properly applied, these methods will dramatically increase the probability that online solutions will meet the overall business objectives. User Vision has helped many financial organisations design sites to better suit their users, and they quickly see how such improvements can increase revenues. As Intelligent Finance founder Jim Spowart said soon after the launch of the site after considerable usability input “This investment in testing the usability of our site has been extremely worthwhile. We are currently experiencing around 54 per cent of our business through the internet which is a far greater usage rate that we had originally anticipated. Pre-launch predictions were that two thirds of the bank’s business would come via the telephone channel.” Things have continued well for IF, with the web channel playing a significant role in reducing costs and attaining new customers.

When Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) decided to redesign their web site they worked with consultancy User Vision and site designers HeathWallace to research what users were looking for and how to best present it. New designs were then evaluated by User Vision consultants and subjects in usability tests. The result is a dramatic increase in customers doing business on the new RBS site. Following its launch in January 2003, online applications to open a Direct Saver account rose by 47 per cent. Similarly, applications for the Bank’s internet only personal loan rose by 26 per cent. There has also been a 100 per cent increase in brochure requests and a significant increase in visitors to the small business and mortgage sections. The site was recently commended by the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) for ‘Most usable & accessible site’.

Access for all

Closely aligned with the issue of usability is making a site accessible for those with disabilities. Thanks to innovative browsers and software, blind people and those with motor impairment can access sites through assistive technologies such as ‘screen readers’ which read the site aloud. However, the site needs to be designed to allow these assistive technologies can work. Some main reasons that leading online banks are building accessibility into their sites are:

1. Legal Compliance Under the UK Disability Discrimination Act, online services such as banking must be made accessible to disabled users. Legal action based on disability discrimination has significant legal and PR costs.

2. Wider market According to the Office Of National Statistics, there are 8.5 million disabled customers in the UK. An inaccessible site shuts out many of these people as potential customers.

3. Social responsibility It’s simply the right thing to do. With a little effort in the site design, web site designers can improve the lives of those who with physical disabilities.

Although most early online banking sites were not designed with accessibility in mind, more banks are realising the commercial benefits of making their sites accessible, and are redesigning their sites accordingly. One of the myths concerning accessibility is that sites that are accessible will have no visual appeal. Recent efforts by some leading banks are showing that there need be no trade-off between making a site accessible and the aesthetic design.

Conclusion: usability for profitability

It is widely recognised that online banking provides more revenue per customer and costs less per transaction than any other channel, including phone banking. Encouraging news from Forrester Research states that by 2007 the number of Europeans banking online will double to 130 million. Yet people will naturally gravitate to the ones which are easiest to use and offer the best service. Banks aiming to profit the most from the increase in online banking volumes should consider the usability and accessibility of all aspects of their site to welcome them.

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

User Vision made a tremendous contribution to our site. We didn't expect to learn much from user testing that we didn't already know, but we were completely wrong about that. We received expert advice that was also commercially aware and displayed a real understanding of our business. We have no hesitation in recommending the User Vision team to others.

Editor, OUT-LAW.COM.