Banks meet us where we are – in front of screens

February 26, 2012

Not a day goes by that I don’t realize I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at screens, screens which ostensibly have other people connected to them, looking at screens of their own. You work in front of a screen, you might relax in front of a screen, you plan vacations and communicate with loved ones, frequently, in front of a screen. And now more than ever, you do your banking at home or on the go, in front of a cold, glowing screen.

It didn’t always used to be this way, but we’re certainly not going back any time soon. The industry recognizes this, and is trying desperately to meet our expectation that we can do everything on a screen of some sort. This week’s news was characterized by financial institutions doing what they can to deal with this new, existentially crushing, mode of living.
The move to mobile is full of pitfalls for banks. Take Citibank, for instance. This week news broke that its mobile app — which is lauded for its wonderful user interface — was charging some of its users twice for bills paid through the app. Citibank has since fixed the problem and reimbursed its users. Goes to show that concerns over user interface should not trump functionality, but it’s possible that they do.

Speaking of UI, a Lithuanian company called Etronika debuted an Xbox Kinect-based banking platform last week at Finovate Europe. Users need only wave their arms around in very specific patterns should they want to check their balance on their checking account. Really. And they don’t need to fuss with passwords and PINs — Etronika’s platform relies on biometrics, taking advantage of Kinect’s capabilities. It’s an interesting thought: what if banking were fun, and somehow physically interactive? It is also very silly looking.

And while banks are trying to meet us at the screens that we call home these days, some companies that only existed online are making the move to the physical realm. This week PayPal launched a prepaid debit card that connects to its online accounts, and includes a separate 5% APY savings account. PayPal has already found us at our screens quite successfully. Can they convince us to take them out into the real world? Will this even be a useful strategy? Either way, they’re certainly trying.
The Federal Reserve finally approved Capital One’s acquisition of ING Direct, giving the online bank a real world footprint, and the brick-and-mortar bank a well-branded online interface. Capital One plans on leaving ING Direct accounts as they are, for now. But, they will have some additional real-world functionality — access to ATMs, for instance — offering convenience to customers who might have found they could not do everything online. Sadly, laptops still can’t dispense cash.

All that said, it would be wise for banks to try and make us happy in our increasingly virtual world. Harris Interactive’s reputational quotient survey came out this week, showing that the banking industry is about as popular with Americans as Big Tobacco and the federal government — i.e., not very. That will certainly be a problem for the industry as alternatives to traditional models proliferate and we spend still more time attached to our little screens.

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