March 16, 2016

The rise of contextual banking and its implications on user experience

By: Jaeson Paul, Director of User Experience

Remember going to the bank on a fairly regular basis – actually traveling there to make a deposit, get cash, check an account balance or apply for a loan? It was only open certain days and hours, and it required standing in line and waiting for a turn. The transaction was processed by an actual person and involved passing pieces of paper back and forth.


Over the last 40 years, the banking experience has undergone a dramatic shift. While the services banks provide are largely the same, technology has fundamentally changed the context of how those services are consumed by banking customers. So while banking hasn’t changed, the customer experience has.

Banking has moved from “whenever” and “wherever” to “everywhere”


In the 1970s the branch-based model was dramatically expanded by the introduction and rapid adoption of the automated teller machine. Over the years, ATMs became nearly ubiquitous, but we still had to find and go to an ATM to perform a transaction.

With rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s, broad adoption of online banking added any internet-connected computer to the list of places one could bank – but the customer had to be somewhere they could connect to the Internet.

The introduction of the iPhone in 2007, broke down that final barrier of time and space for banking. With a smartphone in hand, it became possible to bank not just anytime but anywhere.

This shift turned the banking experience on its head. With this final barrier gone, the bank is no longer at the center of the engagement – the individual is. This means that the context of the banking engagement has become ever more complex and unpredictable for banks, and crafting the experience to meet the changing needs of the customers has become ever more challenging.

Creating a new context for banking

 As with so many things people do on their smartphones, banking is rapidly receding into the fabric of daily life – something that happens fluidly and almost imperceptibly – placing new demands on the technology and designs that deliver it. What this means is that banking becomes a participant in our context, rather than defining it. Clear, consistent navigation, an appealing look and feel, and intuitive interaction cues used to be the prized elements of a good user experience. In today’s context-driven world, those things are still required, but they alone are not enough.

…banking now becomes a participant in our context, rather than defining it.

Rather than providing a nice digital place for people to visit, banks have to become good virtual servants, providing services within the context of what the user is doing or wants to do. Because the bank now joins customers in whatever they’re doing at the moment, a good banking experience now, by definition, is one that supports that activity with as little interruption as possible.

Tasks need to be simple, efficient, and appropriate to context, and the bank needs to know its customers personally, and anticipate their needs and preferences. Above all, it needs to enable the customer’s immediate goals, and then get out of the way.

Meanwhile, those goals are becoming more expansive. As if all of the challenges already mentioned weren’t enough, customers expect more and more of what they do to be supported on their mobile devices. Two critical banking functions have stubbornly continued to need some kind of physical place – depositing and withdrawing money. In 2009, USAA introduced the ability to deposit checks via the camera on your mobile phone, taking a big chunk out of the deposit end. The big banks were quick to follow. It’s clear at this point that, unless it involves actual hard currency, customers will expect to be able to do it on their phones, if they don’t already.

To stay relevant to customers, banks need to continue to push the boundaries of how and where to engage with their customers. They also must embrace new technologies that go beyond mere availability and be able to add value within the context of what the customer wants to do.