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The Lost World of E-Banking

(SIGCHI Bulletin September/October 2002)


Professor Challenger, the hero of Author Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, goes in search of a land that time has forgotten. It is a forbidding place, inhabited by dinosaurs, with many hazards for the unwary.

E-banking dinosaurAdventurous web users can visit similar lost worlds without risking life or limb. The worlds in question are called e-banking sites. The ‘e’ is meant to stand for ‘electronic’, but from my own experience of using these sites both in the US and UK, ‘excruciating’ would be more accurate.

The main problem seems to be that like Doyle’s lost world, time has passed many e-banking sites by. The usual rules of web evolution – a form of natural selection – do not apply in these isolated environments. If users get lost or confused they cannot simply switch to another web site. They must confront the monsters head on or change banks. However, in the UK at least, customers are very reluctant to change: a survey in September 2001 found that while 79% of UK account holders have experienced ‘frustrating’ problems with their bank, only 26% have switched banks. A further 14% would like to switch but see it as being ‘too much hassle’.

This means that in many cases e-banking web sites are serving a captive audience. Predictably, this becomes very clear if we look at some of the problems that occur:

  • Belligerent security model. Most e-banking sites I have come across equate inconvenience with security: three or four login screens are not uncommon, yet most of the information requested is in the public domain. I have not yet seen an e-banking site that makes use of stronger security based on certificates or two-factor authentication. Either would be more secure and easier to use, although there are compatibility problems with certificates on some older browsers. To add insult to injury, most of the sites with difficult login procedures require full login even if all that is wanted is account balances.
  • Aggressive navigation. Some Jurassic e-banking sites have bizarre navigation schemes that attempt to disable the browser back button. Unfortunately, absent-minded use of the backspace key by intrepid users spoils this plan and the web site responds with considerable ferocity, typically by closing the browser. (Prehistoric rules of usability dictate that these are normally the sites with the most tortuous login.)
  • Precambrian design philosophy. While there are higher forms of e-banking that support finance packages such as Intuit’s Quicken and Microsoft Money, many give the impression that customers are lucky to have an opening and closing balance displayed. Even if the downloading of statements is not supported, it would be of enormous help to anyone trying to reconcile their accounts (as virtually all organizations must) to have the total number and value of debit and credit transactions. Perversely, I have had my bank ask which size logo I prefer at the top of my statements, but never what information would save me time on a regular basis.

Where does HCI fit into this tale of adventure? Not surprisingly, our problem is similar to that of Professor Challenger’s. But whereas he has only the simple task of bringing a dinosaur back from the lost world, where we have to convince the banking community that their sites really are pre-historic. ‘New age’ banks and e-money may help the evolutionary process along: the UK is the first country to implement the European Directive on this issue . However, without a user-centered approach, e-banking sites offering e-money solutions will just be more difficult to use than they currently are.

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

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© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in SIGCHI Bulletin, {Volume 34, September-October 2002} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/568190.568200

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