How did a mega bank nail a mobile app better than most tech companies?

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 7, 2013

From The News Desk

All day long, we write about startups who are frequently struggling to find some way to make an existing solution on the market much better. As a result, I see a lot of companies that focus on tweaks and incremental changes on existing products. And then, when I return to my regular life as a consumer, I find myself bitching about two things consistently.

The first is technology offered by non-tech companies that simply doesn't work as well as it should. Airline apps, for instance, are wildly inconsistent, with some not even allowing you to check in from them. I downloaded a Fidelity App at tax time because I needed to make a deposit into my retirement account. While the app was gorgeous, I had to actually go into a branch to do that. Something I discovered after 20 minutes with the app and another 30 with a human being on the phone. Or my favorite one I love to hate: Comcast's shockingly awful user interfaces on its DVR and On Demand services.

The second thing I routinely bitch about is more universal: When very customer-oriented companies sell and subsequently lose everything that made them great.

It's not exactly core to what we cover, but when a company actually breaks both of those almost 100 percent truisms, they deserve a quick shout out. So I'm giving a special award to Chase's retail banking arm.

In the wake of the financial crisis, Washington Mutual -- then one of the most customer friendly, non-fee charging, technically-advanced banks in my home market -- sold to the massive chain, JP Morgan Chase.

The only reason we didn't switch was hassle, because our early experiences with Chase were atrocious. When I was traveling internationally, I'd have to call and sit in a terminal phone tree -- with no chance of zero'ing out to a live person -- just to inform them I'd be in China and not to cut my cards off due to fraud protection. The ATMs were hopelessly antiquated. You couldn't even transfer money between a business and personal account via online banking, if you tried to add the business account after the personal account was already opened. It was a crazy quilt of technology "solutions" that made no sense.

And yet, somehow, years later Chase has just nailed it. Mostly, because of its stellar mobile apps. How they could flub phone trees and the Web but nail mobile, when so many more technically advanced Web companies can not (cough, cough Facebook) is beyond me. But as a user, I'm not complaining. We pay our nanny every week by mobile, make deposits, route money, and it all just works beautifully. I can't honestly tell you if those other channels have gotten better or worse over the same time period, because frankly, we haven't needed to use them. (But just in case, branches have also proliferated since the sale, and the ATMs are finally modernized, too.)

Is it possible, this is the lone example where scale actually made something more innovative?

Because we bitch only when things go wrong, I hadn't really noticed how continually delighted I was with Chase until my husband mentioned it this morning. But after some poking around, I saw that Chase has also gotten widespread industry recognition for its mobile efforts. Last year, San Mateo-based Internet testing company Keynote named Chase the top mobile bank, as the only one of the top fifteen banks whose mobile banking covered "all the bases" with text banking, mobile Web and true native apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry. It also won points for ease of use.

I poked around further to try to find out how on earth a massive financial company had done this so well, and found an interesting interview with Chase's senior vice president in charge of these efforts, Ravi Acharya. Yeah, not exactly a household name in the tech world.

But his sentiments had some wisdom that all older or non-tech companies looking to build their first mobile apps should consider. He talks about how functionality really lead the approach in mobile banking. Back in 2006, it debated whether it should do an app or a mobile Web site, and it decided to scale things back further to simple yet functional two-way, text-banking. You could get a note if you were in danger of over drafting and message back if you wanted to move funds. That's nothing that will win awards, but starts a mobile relationship with customers that's actually useful. The bank grew its functionality as mobile audience and utility grew and devices became more sophisticated.

The approach was in Acharya's words, "Let's do things in a simple fashion so that lots of our customers can use it." It was one of the first to offer remote deposits, saying, simply it worked because it "solved basic problems." At the time of the interview some 15 million people were using Chase's mobile banking-- far quicker adoption than previous tech channels and a substantial chunk of its retail user base.

I mean things like simplicity and solving problems shouldn't be rocket science. But contrast this approach to most non-tech companies who put off whatever the new trend is--  building a website, creating a social networking strategy or attacking mobile-- until it's way too late and then overpay someone to build them a half-assed solution that needs to check a lot of boxes but does nothing particularly well.

Imagine, a big company that actually puts functionality and users first. I literally can't think of another major company I interact with everyday as a user that I could say the same thing about.

[Photo Credit: averya219 on Flickr]