Co.Design

BankSimple Wants to Shake Up Banking, With Cutting Edge UI Design

A company founded on the insight that personal online banking is truly horrible — and even harmful.

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."

banksimple

A screenshot from BankSimple, via their website. The company is currently redesigning their interface.

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."

banksimple

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... )

[Read more at BankSimple]

Add New Comment

7 Comments

  • humansindesign

    We had similar frustrations with our bank in Australia an made a video about it:

    http://humansindesign.com/post...

    Interestingly, we propose allowing a 'plug-in' to bank data to allow third parties to front the visualization of data - in Australia I was under the impression this would require legislation.

    In the states and Europe does this functionality exist?

  • David Culver

    Do I understandthen that Bank Simple, which is not a bank, places itself 'in front of' your existing bank and accounts some how? I use wachovia (wells fargo) and the 'safe to spend' balance is helpful. Another area which might be of help is a 'fast equity' or smart equity interface... a la Harry Gill.. d

  • Jimi Hunt

    Great article, and site.

    I hope that Bank Simple can figure out the difference between "your" and "you're" before they go much further... but it seems like a great idea and I hope it works.

  • Ari Nave

    For the sake of transparency, I work at Deutsch and my client is PNC Bank...

    I think that BankSimple is hitting on a tremendous need in the retail banking space. It will be interesting to see how they approach it, building a designed bank from the ground up.

    Recognizing these needs, PNC's checking account platform is built around many of these principles. It is called Virtual Wallet and has a money bar to differentiate money that is allocated to bills vs available to spend, savings engines, etc. There is an iPhone app etc.

    It has been around for a few years. I hope the BankSimple execution will go well beyond and really push the envelope.

    Ari Nave, Ph.D.
    arinave.com

  • Enoch Wu

    Agreed its a wonderful approach. I think the main reason why so many people are in debt is because there is no simple and clear way to view their money. There are so many technologies that could be implemented, and so many UX devigners that could really help people understand how their money is flowing.

    John, I'm going to have to disagree with you on Chase's offerings both web and mobile. I've never had an issue with the deposit by cameraphone option and the web experience (though I will agree that it needs to be more robust and somewhat more simple) isn't all that bad.

    I have an account with Huntington, which is an Ohio-based bank. They're dinosaurs with online and mobile banking. Their online portal is chunky and doesn't offer anything that really helps me understand my money. Check it out at www.huntington.com and just for more laughs check out their mobile approach at mobile.huntington.com

    You have it pretty good with Chase.

    One bank in particular that I have been impressed with is PNC. Their online and mobile banking interfaces seem to be well designed and offer functionality similar to what BankSimple is doing. Their iPhone app looks pretty good. I've been meaning to get an account with them just to see how they approach UX. You never know how well it works until you use it. Hopefully I'll be able to clear up a few things with huntington and move my account to PNC.

    I can't wait for BankSimple though. I hope they launch a dummy site so that people can play with the interface with demo money.

  • Kevin Koenig

    Now there is a novel approach! You mean customer's want something easy to use and something that looks less like an accounting spreadsheet and more like an iPhone or iPad application.

    Is there anyone really surprised by this? i think BankSimple is right on the money. They are going back and investing in something the "big banks" just think customers should have to live with... and they don't.

    I have been in the FS consulting business now for 11 years focusing on customer experience, usability and a clients ability to address those issue while creating value for their companies. They are not positions at the opposite end of the spectrum.

    Great design should help bridge the gap to the mobile banking platform, make personal financial management fun (or at least as fun as it can be) and make the king pin of online banking (pill pay) easy to switch from to another bank. There is a clear and provocative role for great UI design in retail banking. The banks just don't care.

    Further more, there is simply no excuse for bad design these days. For God's sake hire a designer - a good one. They need the work and it's well worth every penny.

    I signed up to join BankSimple long ago and can't wait to tell BofA to go pound sand. Not because I hate them all that much but because they pay no attention to me. They act like I am lucky to be banking with them and to be frank, the UI is on par with everyone else, and that's a zero sum game these days.

    Recommendation to BankSimple: get the service and product portfolio right day one and wrap it in some clean, yet graphically interesting and insightful design and Wells, BoA, Chase etc. won't know what hit them.