What Mondo taught me about the future of banking

Mondo are one of the most talked-about new players on the consumer/retail banking block (just this month they reached a $1m crowdfunding target in 96 seconds), so I was delighted to get a place on their Alpha. Here’s a few early thoughts and observations on my experience and what it might signal for the future of FinTech.

It didn’t start well, for me. Specifically, I managed to destroy a coat rack within moments of arriving in their offices, sending a pile of jackets and scarves to the floor. But within half an hour I was up and running with an app and a fluorescent pre-paid Mastercard, ready to take a look at the future of banking.

As a nerdy consumer I’ve been looking at the future of banking for a long time now — I think I got my first online bank account around the turn of the century, which was roughly the time I started earning money. For most part from an experience point of view the future of banking tends to look a lot like other online user experiences did five years previously*.

* Except my bank account in Asia. That’s more like every other user experience in 2001.

So I’d agree this is a market ripe for disruption, and that customer needs are probably better served by attempting to build a new bank from the bottom-up, based around user need, than building marginally nicer front ends for terrible legacy infrastructure.

Mondo is one of a number of UK startups attempting to do that. Fellow challenger Atom has a banking licence, unlike Mondo, but is yet to have a releasable product. Mondo is taking the reverse tack, developing its app-based bank in public, offering a pre-paid card to several thousand Alpha users and asking for feedback, while working with regulators behind the scenes on getting their banking licence.

I’ve seen the future. It’s pink with a liberal sprinkling of emoji.

Mondo is, in short, a card and an app, with ambitions to turn this into a full service retail bank in time. The app itself is neat; every time I use the card, I get an alert on Mondo, replete with carefully-chosen emoji, before the sales assistant has printed the receipt. These guys must spend a scary amount of time choosing emoji.

It’s a pre-paid, luminous pink Mastercard, and while topping up is simple this does limit its usefulness as there’s no auto top-up option. I was about to pay for a few things at the weekend but only had £20 left on the card; as Hammersmith is a weird mobile phone coverage blackspot I couldn’t add money to it, and had to fall back on my regular debit card. It doesn’t yet work with ApplePay, but the team have said this is on its way.

As it’s linked to your phone, it’s smart enough to work out where you are and how this might impact your spending. If you’re in Singapore and but your card’s being used in Swansea, it can let you know immediately. Which is refreshing change from ham-fistededly blocking your card every time you travel.

The app makes it easy to see what I’ve spent by vendor and category, and gives me the option of adding tags, notes, receipt images and so on to each transaction. It’s easy to see my balance and spending at a glance. A particularly nice feature is the ability to freeze the card when you can’t find it, and unfreeze again when found — rather than the big banks’ standard option of cancelling the card and waiting a long, cashless, cardless week to have a new one sent through the post.

And these are all great features. In fact, if I were my flaky 21-year-old self — on a tight budget and prone to losing my cards — the features offered by Mondo would easily tempt me to switch to it as my main vehicle for day-to-day spending.

But I am not 21. While Mondo does give me a vague sense of guilt over my cumulative spend in sandwich chains, I’m at a point in my life where I’m lucky enough not to be too concerned about £10 spent on wine or nail polish. My digital banking needs are different now I’m a proper grown-up.

I have savings. I’d like to have more savings, and I’d like my bank to help me to make saving a habit rather than an afterthought. Knowing I spent £6.38 on juice and yoghurt is all well and good, but if my bank could tell me, at the right time, that if I bought fewer cakes I could pay my mortgage off two months earlier, that’s useful to me.

I like data, but for my accounts data to work for me I need to be able to see it in one place, and I need it to be interoperable. Spend-specific emojis make me smile, but I can’t use them to reconcile transactions in my freelancer accounting software. My regular bank account has an API and allows me to download transaction data so I can interrogate it.

I also like free stuff. I chose my bank account when I began university, because they gave me a hefty fee-free overdraft and a student railcard. Like most people I have never bothered to change my bank account since. These days I have a reasonable credit rating and a taste for far-flung destinations, so I do all my spending via my credit card in order to build up airline points. A year’s worth of hotel bills, work expenses and pub visits were enough to get me two free flights via my credit card’s reward scheme. I’m willing to put up with some seriously bad UX in return for a free holiday.

Banks for brogrammers, by brogrammers

I like Mondo, and I like what they’re trying to do. What they do, they doreally well. For payments and day-to-day usage, its UI, UX and FX is streets ahead of my high street bank.

But right now it isn’t enough to make it my everyday bank, because it doesn’t (yet) meet my needs as a solvent thirty-something woman.

In that respect, it’s not so different from other startups, very many of which have cropped up to solve the problems of the unrepresentative sample of people who build apps. From Uber to Airbnb to laundry pick-up and gas delivery services, Silicon Valley et al are focused on solving problems faced by people like themselves.

To be fair to Mondo, they have at least recognised this and sought to get more women on their Alpha in order to get a wider range of feedback. But if any company truly wants to transform its sector, it needs to solve the problems of a full cross-sector of consumers. Elderly ones with rubbish phones and failing eyesight. Poor, underbanked ones. Even boring ones like me with low-risk investment needs and unsexy pension arrangements.

As my 300 Seconds co-founder Hadley Beeman said at our opening event three years ago, if we want to change the world, we need a good cross-section of humanity to be involved at every stage — to articulate their user needs, and develop products to meet those needs.

If you want to change banking, you need to solve for more than coffee budgeting.

Banking is a fully digitisable business. In a business which doesn’t deal in tangible things trust is critical. This gives traditional banks a major advantage; most people prefer to entrust their money to an FSCS-backed institution than a startup.

My short experiment with Mondo has shown how quickly a challenger bank can win the user experience battle. While my high street bank has the edge in terms of both functionality and trust for now, challengers are engaging with regulators and fast catching up.

Where traditional banks can maintain an edge is their knowledge of and relationships with a much broader range of customers, recognising that customers don’t just need an app, but a range of products and services to meet their diverse needs at different life stages. Banks have access to a wealth of data on customer behaviour and needs that they could use to develop smarter, easier solutions for customers.

Yet right now neither side seems to be getting it quite right. Startups are focused on solving too narrow a set of user needs to serve the mass market, while traditional banks are attempting to make old systems and structures deliver better digital experiences and coming up short, and resting on their laurels in the hope customers are too lazy or untrusting to try the competition.

Trust in banking and finance continues to lag far behind that of technology firms. Startups are rapidly breaking down regulatory obstacles, gaining consumer trust and building brand recognition. While what Mondo et al haven’t yet got a strong enough product to make me ditch my bank, if they can beef up their offering and combine this with quality user experience, they’ll get my money soon.

Intranets need to be a bit more fabulous

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Beauty Project, a celebration of all things beautiful at London’s Selfridges department store. There I listened to beauty columnist Sali Hughes talk to a panel of women about their experiences of – and different attitudes to – beauty.

While many deride the beauty industry as frivolous and superficial, for others make-up instills chameleon-like superpowers, giving them the confidence to go into any new context knowing they look the part.

As I returned to work the next day, it struck me what a depressingly under-appreciated quality beauty is in online experiences, and particularly in intranets. And how because we don’t apply make-up to our standard intranet faces, they suffer the fate of appearing unglamorous, dowdy and frequently unloved.

For a couple of years now I’ve been collecting intranet screenshots in a Pinterest board – over 230 so far. There are some great examples, but a lot of bad ones too.

It got me thinking: wouldn’t intranets be better if, like this weekend’s Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, they were just a little bit more fabulous?

Ugly sister

Intranets have historically been the poor cousin of the organisation’s website. They’re utilitarian things. Intranets often began life as a little side project, put together by someone in IT, built using clunky old tools. They served a purpose, but they didn’t do it very elegantly.  That purpose was usually communication, resulting in dense, ugly pages of text.

If you were really lucky, you’d get some icons. But these early intranets were no fun – they were serious stuff, and they had the rugged bad looks to show for it. These early intranets were managed, painfully, using tools like FrontPage and LotusNotes.

Early intranets were no lookers

Creating and managing intranets became easier with the widespread adoption of content management systems. Unfortunately, this often meant Sharepoint. Sharepoint is packed with functionality, but left a lot to be desired when it came to visual design. At the same time, few organisations gave much thought to the need for strong graphic design on an intranet. After all, it’s not like you’ll look anywhere else, is it? (Remember, at this time many organisations still routinely blocked web access for staff).

Over time, intranets got a little better, with text communications giving way to other content. Early attempts were made to try and engage users with more than just text, with the use of banners.

As intranets evolved, they began to provide a route through to key services, like HR, IT or room booking.  Problem was, these services were often designed by HR or IT people who didn’t give a great deal of thought to user experience, still less to visual design.

Text-heavy and dull, but early attempts were made to use imagery

Now intranets aren’t on the web, but they are of the web. And as websites became clearer and more engaging, so too – eventually – did intranets. Slowly.

Intranets began to be aligned more closely with an organisation’s brand, using more imagery, bolder fonts, and embracing the use of white space rather than trying to pack every available pixel with more internal communications.

Cinderella moment

But no intranet manager can escape the march of progress. In the first decade of this century, Apple emerged from its doldrums to become one of the dominant forces in technology. And it did this through making products that didn’t just do more, but also looked better than their rivals.

Functional and beautiful became the order of the day. And people loved it. The web stopped being a nerd’s hobby and became a way of life for almost everyone.

In just a few short years, we had a revolution in our hands. Almost all of us now has more powerful technology in our pockets than we do on our desktops. The consumerisation of IT made us all more demanding – we wanted better functionality, faster pages, but we demanded better visual design too. The ugly web just wasn’t good enough anymore.

Intranets have responded to the changing demands of their users with intranets that offer utility as well as communication, in a form that approaches some of the cutting-edge cross-platform design we see on the wider web. This means offering communication and services that don’t just work, but also engage.

Intranets have begun to learn from the best of website design

Embracing the power of imagery

Once freed from the shackles of slow connection speeds, the web has quickly become more visual as brands began to recognise the power of imagery.

We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and because of that  images have become the currency of social media. They can instantly inform, intrigue, inspire, delight or capture the imagination of those that engage with them.

That’s because they affect us in two ways: cognitively, they expedite and increase our level of comprehension, recollection and recognition. But they also work emotionally, enhancing or affecting an emotional response.

And they do that in the blink of an eye. Following the lead of websites and social media, more intranets are making the most of visual assets to inform and engage, and tell their brand story.

Reaping the rewards 

And that’s because there are strong business drivers to do so. Organisations have long realised the impact an ugly office has on morale and productivity. Studies have shown that a well designed work environment improves productivity by anything up to 50%, increases job satisfaction by 24%.

Organisations invest time and money in making their offices look good, even if they’re not client-facing, because they know it makes business sense. But as the digital workplace becomes the place where we got to get work done, it follows that the same is true in our online environments too.

If the primary place that you do your work is online, then making that digital workplace one that people want to work in will have huge benefits in productivity and engagement.

As more of us work flexibly supported by a digital workplace, then the intranet becomes the primary way that we experience and understand our employer brand.

By connecting employees with the organisation’s brand and vision using both content and design, good-looking intranets create more engaged employees. Better looking intranets can have a big impact on their business outcomes.

The times, they are a-changin’

It’s encouraging, then to see intranets finally embracing the power of beauty. This year’s My Beautiful Intranet competition, the Digital Workplace Group’s annual intranet beauty parade,  is already seeing a steady stream of entries – and they’re a million miles away from the out-of-the-box ugliness that’s plagued the industry for two long.

Dense blocks of text, tiny images and 1990s styling has been replaced with big, blod and on-brand design on par with some of the best web sites around.

The competition is still open for entries – take a look, vote for your favourites or submit your own. I’m on the judging panel this year, and am looking forward to seeing more.

Is there more to life than being really, ridiculously good looking?

Of course a great intranet can’t just be about form over function. But by combining form and function, pairing great functionality with an interface that functions well and looks good, we create intranets that have a huge impact on engagement and productivity – and are really loved by our users.

Reflections on UX Camp London (#uxcl13)

I recently heard user experience described as the “joy of use”. But all too often, that’s tolerance at best – and more often, discontentment.

Marshall McLuhan famously wrote the medium is the message. In digital, the message – content – is inseparable from the full experience of using the site, the medium. However good the content, the end user’s impression is how both the content, and the medium that delivered it, made them feel. That means there’s a symbiotic relationship between content and the structure, design, information architecture, navigation, and anything that contributes to the joy – or otherwise – of interacting with a site.

So this weekend I took myself along to UXCampLondon, a one-day unconference for those interested in user experience.

UX Camp London

Here’s my highlights:

Bringing human emotions into habitual micro-interactions

The two brothers behind Brighton-based agency Ribot kicked off with an opening keynote on habitual micro-interactions – those regular online habits, which give some type of reward (such as Facebook or Foursquare checkins).

These are often of limited appeal, mostly to Quantified Self nerds like me, who see the data itself (and associated bragging rights) as reward enough. But for an app to gain traction, it needs to offer the user more – it needs to recognise the value of human emotion.

Antony Ribot began by talking about the Nike+ Fuel Band, a personal activity tracker that he’s clearly a big fan of. It rewards the user with praise and recognition when they achieve successive episodes of above-target activity. But as Ribot pointed out, when you need feedback from the app is not when you’re already doing well, but when you’re close to failing, and need a reminder to spur you on to meet your goal.

While Nike+ is a great app, by focusing only on success, it fails you when you need it most. Ribot noted that when he missed a day, the app didn’t remind him. It simply re-set, as if his successful streak had never happened. He was back to square one, sending him into a kind of Nike+ tantrum, disengaged with both the app and his exercise regime.

This was a funny (if long-winded) reminder that the focus of user experience design is not design, but users – real humans with real emotions and foibles.

So Ribot made human emotion central to the iOS app they’ve created for coffee chain Harris + Hoole. This loyalty app allows users create a profile, including uploading a photo and details of their favourite coffee (‘my usual’).

When the user checks in using their handset at a branch of H+H the server will identify them in the queue from their photo, be able to address them by their first name and ask  “your usual?”.  Users can collect loyalty points via the app, and there are plans afoot to add payment functionality.

Aside from the obvious concerns about this being creepy and overfriendly, what’s interesting about this app is that the technology supports – but takes a back seat to – customer experience. The app provides something more than the social currency of a Facebook checkin, by layering this in to real-life customer interaction that feels warmer and more personal.

Whatever your thoughts on sharing your name, photo, location and coffee preferences with an ‘independent’ chain that’s 49% owned by Tesco, the H+H app is an impressive example of how to inject better emotional design into apps and online experiences.

This set the tone for the rest of the day, a fascinating insight into the many and varied elements that contribute to the joy (or pain) of using a website.

Simplifying the UI to improve conversion

Paola began by describing a familiar problem; an e-commerce design that’s expanded rapidly finds they have a lack of consistency in page elements, like buttons and labelling. In fact, on this site half of the front page elements were for SEO purposes only, and they have multiple product managers and departments managing the page.

There followed a textbook example of how to do a UX redesign.

  • Had 40 multivariant tests running on the homepage at all times
  • Did an audit of the site. Printed screenshots of inconsistent elements and showed the sheet volume to stakeholders to highlight the extent of the problem
  • Created a persona. Lucy represented different customer ‘modes’, such as researching, price comparing, booking, etc. Lucy was frequently referred to in workshops (“what about Lucy? All she wants to do is book”)
  • Developed a plan setting out how create consistency on buttons, next steps, location of information, etc

Once Paola had scoped the problem and solution, she sold the need for simplification to the business by emphasising the benefits in simplifying updates as well as improving customer experience (in turn, increasing conversion).

…or rather, it would have been a textbook example, if hotels.com had implemented the changes. But they haven’t yet, because of the way the site is managed. And that, my friends, is why getting your site governance right is essential.

Redesigning the comic book for the digital native form

A chance corridor conversation led me to attend a session on comics next. To say this is an unlikely choice for me is an understatement; I just don’t get the appeal of comics.

I’m very glad I did. Katan led a a fascinating discussion on reinventing the comic book for the digital age. Comics are currently where sales catalogues were in 1999, with producers putting barely-changed versions of their print design online.

That, explained Katan, is a huge missed opportunity. Digital native display of sequential art should not mean animation of flat art. To truly embrace the potential of the online form, they need to move to a display which is multi-layered and non-linear, taking full advantage of hypertextuality to give a richer experience of going back and forth in time, or between elements of the story.

Katan is working on an ambitious project, called CAPOW, which creates both a workflow system for the various artists who contribute to a comic, and a content management system that will allow for a responsive reflow of panels across screen sizes, and enable better publication of non-linear visual stories (what Scott McCloud calls the “infinite canvas”)

While I’m still not likely to buy a comic, I found this a really inspiring session; it’s left me thinking about other publications which are trapped in a presentation form from a pre-digital age, and how they can be reinvented.

Sketchnoting workshop

Sketchnoting is a style of visual note-taking that has become hugely popular at tech conferences in the past few years. I first became aware of it when I spoke at Intranatverk earlier this year, where Francis Rowland did sketchnotes of each of the talks, including mine.

Sketchnoting

I’ve seen a bunch of other sketchnotes since, but not been tempted to begin using the technique myself as I cannot draw (At all. Really, I’m terrible at it). But when I spotted there was a workshop on it at UXCamp, I was keen to go along and find out more about it.

The session was led by Information Architect Boon Yew Chew, who uses sketchnoting as a regular technique in his work. He gave an overview of the key tools and techniques, including how to capture the key points and (usefully for me) why an inability to draw need be no barrier to taking sketchnotes.

He then challenged us to give it a go, taking notes on a short TED talk.  The photo above shows my efforts. It turned out better than I expected, and is a technique I’m going to practice a little. Boon gave me a copy of Mike Rohde’s Sketchnoting Handbook, which I’m already using to try and learn the techniques and structures.

Overall impressions

This was the first time I’ve been to UXCamp London, and overall found it worthwhile and useful event, with a good mix of talks on widely varying topics.

It could have done with more people running sessions, as at a couple of points there were only two or three to choose from, which were very overcrowded as a result. But it was very refreshing to see that women made up around half of those attending, and running sessions. And at only a tenner including lunch, it was remarkably good value too.

I’d encourage anyone with an interest in UX to attend in future years (or months – there’s a UX Camp Brighton coming up in November).

You shape your intranet. Thereafter, it shapes you.

In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan said “we shape our tools. Thereafter, they shape us”.

McLuhan’s focus was language; he argued that language doesn’t describe that which is in the world, but rather, we can only see the world through the medium of language. Language is limiting; our tools don’t let us do whatever we want, but instead limit and often dictate what we do.

His thesis is that while the way we work, think and communicate have led to tools being designed the way they have, once this design is finalised it closes the loop and that tool influences how you think or behave.

To take an offline example, albums are around an hour long simply because this was how much music would fit on a vinyl record. But this persisted long after the physical media was replaced with one where length was no longer so constrained; the shared understanding remains that the art form of the album is “a collection of approximately an hour’s worth of music”. Even after the arrival of the MP3 player, the concept of the ‘album’ remains, with the download market set up so music can be sold in two sizes: single songs, or ‘albums’. An arbitrary decision about vinyl production has shaped the listening habits of four generations.

The same is certainly true online. It’s years’ worth of your reading and searching habits which determine the priority Facebook gives to updates from your friends. But this quickly becomes circular, so that in time you no longer see updates from some friends, and they’re filterered out of your life, while others get more of your attention. In the early days of Facebook, it was us – as consumers – who shared our updates, uploaded our pictures and moaned every time a new feature was rolled out.

But here we are years later, with Facebook serving us up a homogenised diet of updates (in a feed feature no one seems to like), stalking us across the Internet, and auto-tagging us in pictures – and we just suck it up. Because, well, what choice have you got? You’ve got to be on Facebook these days, don’t ya? etc.

As on the Internet, so in the enterprise. In its infancy, it’s the organisation that shapes the intranet, designing it around the needs of internal users. Or at least, that’s the theory. In truth, organisations get the intranet they deserve, with flaws and compromises and sometimes just bad decisions.

But thereafter, it’s the business that has to live with this, and it’s the people within it who have to suffer the consequences. The decisions you make at the design stage will affect the way employees work every single day, for years.

The language used on your intranet – from labelling to tone of voice – both reinforces and shapes company culture. So, too, does visual design, technology and content; all of these things say something about the type of organisation you are. They impact on engagement and retention. Claims to be a hyper-efficient organisation working at the forefront of technological change cut little ice with the workforce when they still need to download a form in Word, print it, sign it and post it to apply for remote access to your network.

Intranet design shapes the way the business works. Done well, social functionality can break down silos, enable people to work more effectively and support flexible working. Done badly, design costs money – in reduced productivity, disengaged staff, abandoned processes and channel shift. A badly designed form might be a necessary compromise right now, but it’s a big bundle of irritation that could be annoying colleagues long after you’ve left.

What do we do about it?

  1. Don’t make your intranet bad in the first place. This seems obvious, but it happens all too often. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard intranet managers describe the latest feature on their intranet as “well yes, I know it’s a terrible idea, but the CEO’s insisting on it”. Time invested in getting all your senior stakeholders to sign up to the principles of User Centred Design early on will pay dividends later on as it gives you the option to suggest any Bright Ideas are user tested (and changed) before being bolted on to your intranet.
  2. Identify your fail points and make the business case for making changes. Got a bit of functionality that everyone hates? Find out why, work out what it’s costing (not necessarily in cash terms – task completion time, or numbers of abandoned transactions are all powerful arguments for change) and sort it out.
  3. Design for the organisation you want to be, not the one you used to be.
  4. Focus on making things work the best way they can, not replicating offline formats or existing practices on the intranet. I’m yet to experience a single instance where anyone loves a printed document so much that they’d rather have a PDF than a page properly formatted for web.
  5. Improve, all the time. All too often, intranets are seen as a project, to be overhauled over the course of a few months then left for another five years until it’s once again woefully out of date. Good intranets continue to innovate, adding on new functionality to support changing needs and deliver organisational goals.

It was McLuhan who coined the phrase the medium is the message. Your intranet is your medium; what message does it convey to your organisation?

What makes for a good council website?

I’ve decided to steer clear of blogging on the recent disastrous  Birmingham Council website launch.

While Paul Canning’s blog post sums up the catalogue of errors extremely well, it’s clear to anyone visiting the site that huge mistakes have been made. Bad government websites are launched all the time, but few have Birmingham’s £2.8m price tag.

The one good thing to come out of this debacle is a renewed focus on producing good, user-focused council websites.

Just what does make for a good council website? Whether we’re local gov webbies, communicators, or interested users, we all have ideas on what makes websites work for local authorities.

Dave Briggs has set up a page on IdeaScale where local gov webbies and interested amateurs can collaboratively produce a wishlist of what council websites really ought to have.

He hopes this will provide a resource full of good advice for councils looking  to improve their web presence.

Come and join the debate! You can submit your ideas or vote and comment on the ideas already suggested.

You can find it at: http://localgovweb.ideascale.com/