In a world where we are all familiar with highly usable graphical interfaces, such as Google or the iPhone, offering customers an application that is anything less than elegant could be putting the business at risk. Potential new customers might avoid a product because it lacks usability, particularly if a competing product is easier to use.
Electronic banking (e-banking) solutions are no exception. This article describes the measures that CoCoNet took in designing the latest version of the Multiversa International Finance Portal (IFP), a payment transaction and cash management solution.
Usability as a Key Differentiator
At the most basic level, every application has to offer ‘utility’, in that it provides the functionality that its users need. But today’s software must provide a positive user experience, which introduces an evolutionary step upwards in the ‘hierarchy of needs’ that an application must satisfy.
‘Usability’ means that a software application is intuitive and efficient to use. This is particularly important for web-based software, where certain de facto standards have become established over time. Renowned usability guru Jakob Nielsen commented on the usability of websites: “[People] don’t want to learn how to use a homepage. There’s no such thing as a training class or a manual for a website. People have to be able to grasp the functioning of the site immediately after scanning the homepage – taking a few seconds at most.”
It is thus important to make a software application not only ergonomic, but also intuitive and efficient to use in order to outperform the market. A beneficial side effect is that it will also reduce support costs.
The ultimate stage in the hierarchy of user experience is ‘joy’, meaning that a user experiences pleasure when using the software. This is all about emotions, attraction, motivation, stimulation and arousing curiosity.
To appreciate this, take a close look at an iPhone: people spend hours simply playing around with it, purely out of curiosity. Apple has set new benchmarks for user experience, and judging by the prices they can charge for their products, a positive user experience is worth a higher price.
Figure 1 illustrates this hierarchy of evolution for an application. The utility level is at the very bottom: the application is functional and useful, it does what is expected of it and it works as programmed. The next stage – reliable – also belongs to the utility level. Usability starts on the level above that, ranging from usable to convenient. At the top, ultimately, a software application reaches the realms of joy, being pleasurable and meaningful.
Most software applications today hover somewhere around the first level of utility, maybe with the odd foray into level two usability. As CoCoNet’s aim is to outrank the competition, we make sure our software is not only usable, but also a pleasure to use. We wanted to aim for the top of the pyramid.
Turning Theory into Practice
Aiming for the top is easier said than done. The product management at CoCoNet faced this challenge with the redesign of its advanced e-banking portal for corporate customers, a well-established product. The utility of the product was certainly fulfilled, but users were looking for better usability. For example, they wanted corrections to slight usability deficits such as the ability to use both a comma and a full stop as the decimal delimiter for entering amounts – an important factor for anybody having to type in hundreds of amounts daily on a numeric keypad. More serious user comments were ones such as, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do on this screen”.
Now, that’s a warning sign that should not be taken lightly. Modern e-banking portal applications require more than plain functionality. As users have experience with other software applications, specifically with popular websites, they bring their expectations to e-banking applications as well. And if we were still stuck on level one utility with our portal application, it’s time to make a move – or risk losing customers.
CoCoNet decided to carry out a major version upgrade of the software, code-naming it the ‘usability version’. We knew that outside help in assessing the interface was vital. After all, we had designed the previous versions ourselves, including the version which was under assessment here.
CoCoNet carried out a proposal process with several usability design agencies that have specialised in this field. In searching for a service provider, we learned that not only are good references a key criterion, but also that usability design comes in all colours and sizes. We chose a usability design agency that has worked successfully in our area of business. The processes presented by the agencies were comparable, following the sequence of analyse – design – prototype – evaluate.
The processes started with analysis of the current system, through expert evaluations, customer-surveys, walkthroughs, etc. The analysis resulted in a list of weaknesses and areas to improve in the current software. CoCoNet found that customer surveys contained some very illuminating comments.
A joint design between the usability agency and software experts (mostly product management personnel) resulted in ‘wire frames’, or rough structure diagrams of the new screens. A prototype phase turned the wire frames into mock-up screens, which were then tested by ‘real’ users.
For some websites, remote usability testing is an option where a certain number of users can test a version of the software that already contains the intended usability changes, thus allowing a comparison to the rest of the users still working with the previous software version.
The implications are that the usability changes have to be presented not only as mock-up pages, but also as software capable of withstanding production use – with all the associated costs.
It can be a challenge to find users willing to run tests on mock-up screens as the tester must solve certain pre-defined tasks under scrutiny from a usability expert. It is important that product managers are not present during these tests, as they tend to have (and voice) their own opinions.
In the end, it turned out that only a small number of testers were needed. A few people had already detected usability issues, so additional testers did not contribute significant new insights. The test results were evaluated and incorporated during a redesign phase. This phase finally produced a detail concept, an updated prototype and a style guide that set down specific requirements for developing new screens.
Follow the Basic Principles…
In designing the new screens, CoCoNet observed some basic principles in order to create a highly usable software application. These principles are:
- Know your users: What do they want to achieve, what background and experience do they have and what context are they working in? One aspect of this is to use the language that the users understand by choosing the right terms, phrases and concepts.
- Keep it simple: A simple but high-impact rule. A user should know what to do next. Any one screen should therefore not offer too many choices. There must be a guided workflow for more complex activities. There may be an ‘expert mode’ offering shortcuts for more experienced users, which increases flexibility.
- Things that look the same should act the same: Software must behave consistently.
- Every action should have a reaction: Let the user know when something is happening with the help of a status display. Displaying some kind of progress indicator is particularly important for websites with potentially long loading times.
- Every mistake should be fixable: No one is perfect, so if users make a mistake, tell them about it (with meaningful messages) and allow corrections. Don’t let users run into trouble just because they clicked the wrong button (e.g. there should be a safety question if the user clicks on a delete button by accident). This goes hand-in-hand with allowing the user to try things out without danger of corrupting the system (discoverability) – there should always be warning messages if something ‘dangerous’ could occur.
- No surprises: The software should behave as the user expects. There should be no surprising reactions and flows should be consistent. Again, this supports the discoverability of the application.
Ensuring that the software application behaves according to these principles goes a long way towards making it usable. There are a few more rules, such as meaningful error messages, but they are accommodated in the principles above.
Once CoCoNet had re-designed our main software processes according to these principles, accepted the style guide and thought we were done with the usability re-design, all that remained was to actually implement the design.
… and Learn the Lessons
In truth, we had not reached the end of the process. This was realised when the people involved in the design process presented the new design internally to other stakeholders, such as the sales department and the product managers of the customers. Discussions revealed that it was not sufficient just to redesign the main software processes – in fact CoCoNet ended up prototyping 90% of the software application in order to get agreement and acceptance from all stakeholders and discuss the new concepts in detail. We needed to revisit previously accepted screens for consistency reasons, or to add new screens to the list once realising that there is a demand for it.
The main lessons here are:
- Get all the stakeholders involved from the very beginning: Linus Torvalds coined this mantra when developing Linux: “Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.” The same applies here: get people involved and show them the latest ideas. A joint decision means buy-in (and motivation) from everyone. But don’t underestimate the time this takes: CoCoNet had twice-weekly design meetings lasting several hours each, where new designs were presented and discussed; and then several meetings with a group of customer representatives.
- Define the processes and stick to them: Ensure that everyone always knows where the project status and where it goes from here. Ensure that decisions are agreed upon and recorded in writing. Ensure that the discussion is moderated – design discussions tend to be emotional and led by non-tangible factors (“Somehow I don’t like this…”). And ensure that such discussions lead to tangible changes.
- Set up a prototyping shop: Dedicate resources to the prototyping of the new design ideas and give them a good, rapid prototyping tool. CoCoNet dedicated one room with several people for prototyping. They had the right tools, i.e. sufficient hardware and the right software. CoCoNet used the ‘GUI Design Studio’ as its prototyping tool. Don’t forget to dedicate the required functional knowledge as well.
- Integrate with the tech people: After all, tech people will have to implement the design, so they should be involved. A usability release may actually spur a larger technical change, even a move to a new platform or a new implementation framework. This may result in certain capabilities that may not have been there earlier, e.g. certain standard controls which are now available for design.
- Follow the ‘separation of concerns’ rule: There should be (at least) one person who owns the redesign process, working to ensure that the best results are achieved and that usability does not suffer because of time or budget constraints. For obvious reasons, this shouldn’t be the same person as the one in charge of planning and implementing the changes, who might have to make compromises due to time and budget constraints. These are completely separate roles.
Constantly learning these lessons and following up on them, CoCoNet remained on track. With some fine-tuning, the design process yielded steady progress and implementation was well underway in a foreseeable, manageable fashion.
In a world of usable graphical interfaces, CoCoNet’s new e-banking portal for corporate customers has evolved from a utilitarian and robust application into one that offers its users real improvements in usability. CoCoNet involved external experts for a fresh look at the status quo. The company followed basic principles in designing the new generation of usable software with the help of experienced test subjects. And it improved upon its design with careful input from the various stakeholders in the organisation, as well as from customers. The final result was a manageable and predictable development process that has produced an e-banking portal that is at the forefront of usability.
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