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How to Build a Bionic Mobile App

We have the technology to make better, stronger, faster mobile banking applications. So what does it take to build the killer app?

Related: 6 Ways to Secure Mobile Apps

To paraphrase the opening lines of the iconic 1970's TV show that made Lee Majors a star: We can build it. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic app.

In "The Six Million Dollar Man," scientists took a broken human, added bionic parts and rebuilt him -- better, stronger, faster. As far as banks are concerned, they now have the technology to take complex account functions and make them better, stronger and faster within the context of the mobile platform. In other words, we have the technology.

When it comes to mobility, the technology exists within current smartphones to build a better banking experience. But that isn't accomplished simply by repackaging online banking features into a downloadable app or by building something complex. In terms of mobile banking, the perfect app is simple and usable, utilizes technology inherent to the platform such as GPS and built-in cameras, and puts the power of the bank at customers' fingertips in such a way that they will keep coming back.

"Banks are complicated and they like their complexity," says global banking consultant Brett King, author of "Bank 2.0: How Customer Behaviour and Technology Will Change the Future of Financial Services." "But the big push around apps and why the mobile phone is becoming successful as a platform is that people can do it simpler and quicker and there's a context to it."

In banking terms, the online and mobile channels, while they share a number of similar functions, are completely different worlds. Among other things, online banking ideally offers a connection to multiple accounts or investments, gives a broad view of a customer's finances, and provides a gateway to other products and a clear resource for answers to customer questions.

"At the end of the day we have multiple channels we touch our customers in, and it's unlikely for us to have one customer who is going to access the bank through just one channel," says Tracey Weber, managing director for Internet and mobile for New York-based Citibank's North America consumer banking. "A killer app or a killer mobile solution is one that enables the consumer to interact seamlessly through all those channels."

Keep It Simple

At the same time, however, the mobile platform forces a bank to streamline its functionality, build a simplified user experience and bring in novel features that take advantage of a mobile device's unique capabilities, all while giving customers the sense that, wherever they go, their bank is there too. "First and foremost it's about having a very simple customer experience in the context of the mobile app," adds Weber. "One of the things that's good about the mobile interface is that it forces companies to design a simple solution, whereas the Internet lends itself to being more complex."

On a three- to four-inch screen, it's important to make the most of what you've got, suggests consultant King. "If you think about mobile, mobile is not just about the fact that you can get the information on the phone," he says. "But the interface has to be tighter, simpler. You have to think about the interaction."

According to Reston, Va.-based Internet research company comScore, the number of U.S. consumers accessing mobile banking reached 29.8 million by the end of 2010, a 54 percent increase over the number of mobile customers in 2009. But a deeper look at the numbers reveals that about half of those mobile banking users still prefer online banking over mobile.

This suggests that as data-connected phones and accessibility are improving, customers are using the mobile channel more often. But they might not necessarily find it useful, can't use mobile to do what they need, or are concerned about security. Further, a customer might be discouraged by a mobile app that isn't tailored to the device itself.

"With the mobile app, you really have to start thinking about getting this right," King says. "It's not just about access to your last five transactions and your account balance."

So what, then, makes the perfect downloadable mobile banking app today?

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