Mobile vs. desktop-based online banking

In an era of mobile first, when any software product manager is chastised for not putting mobile front and center in any roadmap, and when online giants like Facebook pivot to mobile in a big way (or at least try to), it is worth wondering if the desktop and laptop are still important or even relevant in consuming online banking services.

By the look of it, we are past the point of considering that mobile banking would face a risk of not gaining traction because of security issues. These were the original concerns raised in the early days of internet banking adoption and those were alleviated. So mobile is here and mobile is big but will mobile kill the desktop in the delivery of financial services?

To begin, let’s exclude geographies where mobile devices are king because of poor infrastructure, limited penetration of personal computers and broadband. Mobile banking is not just a winner but the only option in these situations.

Tablet: mobile or desktop or both?

And where do tablets fit in the mix by the way? They clearly represent a significant and growing percentage of online banking usage. Data from Tealeaf in their digital consumer survey show tablets being used to conduct banking activities across all age groups by an average of 7% of users via the banks’ websites and 6% via an app (against averages of respectively 16% and 18% in for smartphones).

In terms of category, tablets map to both mobility and home-based usage where they are often treated as ‘couch devices’. It is therefore critical to track tablet usage separately and to avoid bundling them with mobile and draw the right conclusion when it comes to assessing mobile vs. desktop-based online banking.

Small screen or big screen

The screen real-estate is one of the obvious factors influencing the customers’ preference for one type of device against another. Looking at the perception of different age groups is a clear driver for such preferences. For example, in a report by PwC Australia, 52% of baby-boomers (45 years old and up) said they would not consider using a mobile phone for online banking because they prefer using a big screen for these activities.

But, beyond age groups, we need to acknowledge that some things just don’t work well on a small screen today. Let’s take an example with one of the standard personal finance tricks of paying bills as they arrive, and let’s assume that online banking will be used for that purpose. If the biller sends the invoices by post, the desktop (or tablet) is in its home territory and is likely to win the user over. On the other hand, if the bill notification is sent via email, the process on a smartphone looks like the following (real example in a developed market like Singapore):

Open the email message, if it is a basic notification with a link to the biller’s website, follow the link, move to the web browser, log on to the biller site, find the bill, review the details, memorise the amount to pay and reference number, switch back to the home screen, find the mobile banking app, open the app, log on, in many cases find the necessary token or select the SMS-based authentication, get the SMS challenge from the message app and input it in the banking app, reach the bill payment functionality, select the biller, type in the amount and reference (what do you mean “you forgot the amount you had to memorise earlier and need to switch back to the biller website”?? And don’t get me started on the user-friendliness of the average smartphone’s copy & paste functions…), submit the details and sign out.

If the email notification was containing a PDF attachment, a few of the steps above could arguably be skipped but the overall pain of the process would not have been significantly lessened. At pretty much every step of the way, any sane user is likely to stop such a painful multi-app, multi-touch and overall cumbersome user experience, and instead park the notification email and wait to be back in the comfort of the office or home desktop to pay the bill.

Blame it on the awkward multi-tasking abilities of smartphones or the poor bill payment functionality of the mobile banking app or the lack of integration in a national billing scheme, but the truth is that even for relatively simple and granular actions, the mobile experience can sometimes be dreadful today.

Quiet-time or always-on banking

That being said, moving on from screen real-estate, there is also more to banking than bill payment or other quiet-time activities like financial planning, tax preparation or various analytics favouring a large desktop or laptop screen and a fluid multi-tasking environment.

It is hard to beat mobile devices when it comes to a quick balance check on the road, real-time expense tracking, mobile payments or location-based commerce, or even any activity leveraging the combination of portability, camera and network connectivity for things like remote deposit capture.

Beyond real-time, the always-on ubiquity of the mobile device is also a key factor in selecting it to conduct banking activities. Comscore has published some interesting data on consumers’ device preferences throughout a working day, highlighting the popularity of mobiles to brighten the commute while desktops / laptops dominate the day and tablets prevail at night.


Winning with all channels

The different suitability of mobile and desktop user experiences depending on the selected banking activity, the importance of the location, the distinct advantages of real-time vs. long-running processes, and the mere evolution of daily preferences driven by other more prominent activities all point to the complementarity of the mobile, desktop and tablet channels.

What’s more is that users of mobile banking seem to actually interact more frequently across all channels than other banking customers, as highlighted in the PwC study with data from the UK. Far from cannibalising other channels, mobile banking would actually seem to help increase the frequency of interactions with the bank. Time to delete that ‘vs.’ in the title of the post.


Bottom line is that, like banks should probably not close all their branches just yet, it might be a good idea not to kill or even stop investment in the desktop just yet either. Dumping other forms of online banking and going all-in with mobile is not really an option for banks yet and probably ever. A true omni-channel and balanced experience across devices and across use cases is a lot more likely to address customers’ expectations.