Westpac announced yesterday that it has over a million users actively signing in and using its mobile banking platform regularly. But what does it take to build an app that people keep coming back to? The bank's chief information officer (CIO) says that it requires more care and research, than one might think.
When talking to Clive Whincup, Westpac's CIO, there's a sense that he's not about making rash decisions. He talks about iterative changes rather than "big bang" style roll-outs and advocates gradual transformation, rather than rip-and-replace.
When it comes to the bank's app strategy, Whincup takes the same view. It's more about releasing a bevy of apps to meet different user segments, than focusing on one big app-initiative.
Westpac yesterday showed off two of its latest apps for the iPad: an in-house app for secure note taking and an app that lets third-party brokers complete mortgage applications on an iPad, quickly and easily.
When it comes to designing each app, he said it's important to look at how, first, a customer uses a mobile device. That way, the bank can decide how to best implement certain features.
"A lot of what we look at very carefully is how people interact with a device. We're seeing that the mobility phenomenon is really about how people interact with a particular form factor, and what types of behaviour do those form factors suit," he said.
A form factor can radically change how people use an app, Whincup said. There's a dramatic difference between how someone uses a tablet, like the iPad and how they use a device, like the iPhone, despite the fact that the two run the same operating system.
"What we're trying to do is understand where technology is taking the customer's behaviour. You can only really do that if you understand what they're doing with the app," he said.
The mobile space is also changing rapidly, Whincup said. A device like the 5-inch Samsung Galaxy Note, for example, is a wildcard that the bank will carefully study, to see if it alters mobile trends. The CIO believes that the device demonstrates the dynamic nature of the mobile market.
"We don't really know, if we're honest, how customers are going to use mobility applications in [the] future. The uptake is so dramatic and so exponential that uses are changing all the time. We can't always predict a year ahead of time and say this is what customers are going to do. We have to track them step-by-step and follow the trends," he said.
Once the bank has the data on how customers use devices, it takes an incubator approach to design and deployment, rather than just throwing an app out into market to see how it performs.
This attitude is demonstrated in the bank's approach to mobile payments.
The Commonwealth Bank went live with its first mass-market near field communications (NFC) payment service, Kaching, late last year. The service saw an iOS-only app deployed into the market and an iCarte NFC-enabled case sold to iPhone customers. Whincup said that Westpac will take a different approach to bringing mobile payment apps to market , which won't focus on having all its eggs in one basket.
"We don't believe we'll see a clear, single pathway forward for micro-payments or mobile payments for some time; so we'll be coming to the market with a number of options for different customer niches, different customer segments and different customer behaviour patterns, and we'll see how it develops from there," Whincup said.
"We don't pretend to know what's going to happen in mobile ... even in six months time. That's why we're taking this adaptive, 'suck it and see' approach. We test things, see what's a good idea and what's not, and then move forward."
When designing and releasing apps, Westpac, along with Australia's other big banks, have always gone where the customer base is.
Westpac is the latest big Australian bank to express doubts on the future of the BlackBerry operating system.
"We don't see any growth in the BlackBerry platform at the moment," Whincup said yesterday.
"Blackberry will be around for a while. I don't think that it'll disappear. I've still got a BlackBerry, but I don't see it leading the field in any given area, personally," he added.
Commonwealth Bank has also expressed its misgivings about the way forward with BlackBerry: the bank's head of Online, Drew Unsworth said in March that he didn't expect to invest heavily in the platform.