Can you hear me, Chase Bank? I hate you. Every time I have to use your arcane, fee-addled products (I've got three checking accounts going just to try to maneuver through the thicket of hidden costs), useless apps (I've never been able to make your fancy "deposit checks by cameraphone" functionality work on my Droid), and moronically limited website (searching transactions more than a few months old? I might as well ask for a unicorn while I'm at it), I fantasize about re-enacting the end of Fight Club in real life.
"Designing the mobile app first forced us to strip down to essentials."
Turns out I'm not alone. The founders of a startup called BankSimple have the same gripes (although perhaps not as vituperatively expressed). "Most people have a horrible relationship with their banks," says Alex Payne, BankSimple's co-Founder and Chief Product & Technology Officer [pictured above]. "We wanted to make the experience a lot more human." BankSimple's creative director, Bill DeRouchey, puts a finer point on it: "We're focused exclusively on the user experience of banking."
On a broad level, BankSimple presents its "human-ness" in obvious ways with promises of "plain, simple language" and "no surprise fees, ever." The company can do this because it's not actually a bank. Instead BankSimple is sort of a customer-service/interface layer for "back-end banks" (as Payne describes them) that don't have branches and focus on products like flexible spending accounts and pre-paid cards. "This isn't itself new — companies that offer prepaid cards have worked in this way for 10 years," Payne says. "But we're presenting ourselves with a suite of services more like what traditional banks actually offer. We want you to point your direct deposits at us, pay your bills with us, transfer funds with us. We want to be the card you pull out to buy groceries or coffee."
Besides a host of up-to-date technology running under the hood, Payne and DeRouchey are mainly betting on good design itself to entice customers to ditch the Chases and Bank Of Americas of the world. "A lot of traditional banking websites get really distracting and difficult to use because they're selling so many products and services on all four sides of your content," DeRouchey says. "We took inspiration from newer web services and apps that have nothing to do with banking: stark, simple, straightforward interfaces that just focus on letting you do what you came there to do."
Judging from the few in-progress screenshots they've posted on their website, BankSimple seems to have more in common with Tumblr or a Twitter iPad app than Chase. That's no accident: "We actually designed the mobile app first," says DeRouchey. "That forced us to strip everything down to the pure essentials. We want to keep things incredibly simple from a visual and cognitive standpoint, so it's always easy to understand."
According to Payne and DeRouchey, BankSimple will offer "all the things that your current bank should have offered you five or ten years ago, but presented better": things like current balance, recent account activity, and transaction-filtering functions. But unlike, say, Chase's dumb-as-a-rock search and drop down menus, BankSimple will let users search all their transactions using natural language — "which can make it actually fun to play with," says Payne. "You can say, 'show me every transaction greater than $100 from when I was in New York six months ago,' and those items will be displayed almost instantly."
"Our UX philosophy is, 'Let's make it nearly impossible for you to fail.'"
Of course, BankSimple also has to do more than your average bank. Using smart categories, geolocation and other up-to-the-minute technology, BankSimple can generate on-the-fly data visualizations about spending habits and goals. Even the "current balance" figure has been rethought: in BankSimple, a so-called "Safe To Spend" balance is actually presented in a more prominent place on the screen, since that's often what we really want to know when we check our accounts. "Usually people are forced to do a lot of mental math about how much money they 'really' have at any given monent," says DeRouchey. "We do that math for them. Our UX philosophy is, let's do all that stuff — let's make it nearly impossible for you to fail with your personal banking."
So when can we throw off the shackles of our dinosaur banks and sign up? Unfortunately, not for a while — BankSimple won't launch to the general public until 2012, says Payne. But it's for a good reason. "This isn't a photo sharing app. People are trusting their real money to us," he says. "The popular way to develop web products now is to crank something out of the course of a couple weekends. But we have to do this safer and smarter and smaller, so we're moving more slowly than the companies you see on TechCrunch every day." Initially, BankSimple is using its staff's friends and family as guinea pigs, but will be opening up the service on a first-come, first-served basis in 2011 to those who have requested beta invites.
But that doesn't mean that people aren't already chomping at the bit to give their banks the finger and switch. "We've had thousands of people sign up already for info, and we get tons of feedback on Twitter from people who hate their banks and can't wait for us to launch," Payne says. If BankSimple can deliver on even half of what it's promising, they can safely add one more person to that list. (Excuse me while I cue up Fight Club again... )