By Peter Ramsey
6 Feb 23
Payments: slow and shallow experiences
I tapped my card, and watched in awe as the notification pinged, almost immediately. It felt like a superpower to see the payment confirmed on my iPhone, with a categorised emoji, before I'd even taken a step away from the checkout.
7 years have passed since then, and what once felt magical is now an expectation of the norm.
So, in 2023, have all of the other banks reached feature-parity? Is there any UX magic left to discover?
To answer this, I made hundreds of transactions, through a combination of controlled experiments (paying myself) and broad real-world usage (paying a variety of real merchants).
I can now demonstrate the high-street banks' lack of performance, and why their payment experiences feel shallow.
1. Notification magic
How long does it take, on average, for a payment notification to appear?
Avg. time for payment notifications to appear
I was shocked too: 7 years later, some of these high street banks still don't have push notifications for purchases.
It's also worth noting that the utility of a push notification has a lifespan.
If your phone buzzes 10 seconds later, when you're halfway out the store, how do you know it's not a text? It stops being a benefit, and decays into a distraction.
A fire alarm isn't useful if it tells you that there was a fire.
It's worth considering that a payment push notification might be the most frequent way that you interact with your banking app.
And therefore, you'd imagine that they were some of the most thoughtful 258 characters that you've ever read.
The first thing you may notice is the length, or that some of the text is printed in caps—which carries the connotation of being angry or concerning.
But there are many subtle copywriting brilliances here:
1. Removing meaningless prefix
i.e., 'Zettle_*' is irrelevant to the user, and some banks cut this out automatically.
2. Removing unnecessary decimal places
i.e., displaying £1, instead of £1.00, is easier to digest. When it's not an exact integer, they'll show the pence too.
3. Using capitalised case
i.e, instead of everything being in caps, they capitalised just the first letters.
And in contrast, it feels like a complete lack of thought or care has gone into many of the high street banks' notifications.
Or more likely: it was a rushed execution, that they never returned to.
4. Showing my partial account number
i.e., I only have one Natwest account, I don't need to know which card was used.
5. Truncated the merchant name
i.e., HSBC chose to show the town instead of the full merchant name. This is a poor trade-off, as 'The Store O...' might not be instantly recognisable to the customer, but they'd be able to identify fraud without knowing the town.
6. Robotic copy
i.e., "£1.00 transaction" is far less personal than "You've spent £1".
Somehow, the magic that the challenger banks created back in 2016, still hasn't been replicated—despite literally being copy and paste-able.
2. The feed
So if not all the banks have notifications, and some of those that do are too slow, what about the apps themselves?
To benchmark these, I ran a series of controlled tests at home, using a payment terminal that was hooked up to pay myself.
Theoretically, the average times would reflect any latency in their apps—i.e., how long it takes for a transaction to appear in my feed, if I just sit there with the app open.
Avg. time for payment to appear on app
To contextualise this, only the challenger banks have realtime feeds.
You can be stood in a cafe, staring at your First Direct app, waiting for the transaction to show up, and it never will—unless you do something. To be clear, you'd also not receive a push notification.
I ran the tests again, but this time manually refreshing the app feeds (i.e., pulling screen down repeatedly to refresh, or jumping between the home and transaction pages).
Avg. time to appear, but with soft refreshing
Barclays and Natwest both needed hard refreshes of the app—i.e., literally closing and reopening.
To put in perspective how weird that is, imagine that you've opened your banking app to check your balance, paid for a coffee, and then you keep refreshing, waiting for the transaction to appear.
You can refresh as many times as you want—the payment won't show up. Despite the illusion that the feed is updating, Barclays (for example) won't display the 'pending payment' that you've just made.
The combination of these two tests gives me confidence that the following two statements are true:
1. Speed is not the problem
The banks are all receiving data within seconds.
2. Implementation is the differentiator
The technical ability to update the feed in real time.
But what the data doesn't show, is how bad the experiences of refreshing actually are.
Often the new transaction would not appear in your feed, but instead your 'available' balance would subtly change after a refresh.
Whatever the technical nuance of a 'pending' payment is, the UX of having two balances, and a separate tab, is not a sensible resolution.
Combining these two balances feels more intuitive, despite being arguably misleading (a purist may be upset that the 'true' technicalities between payment processors have been obfuscated).
3. Shallow experiences
People often argue that challenger banks 'have it easy', because they do less.
The rhetoric is that they're only able to produce better user experiences, because they have fewer features, and that this gives them the ability to focus on just one product.
That narrative is misleading, and in most cases, high street banks offer more services, but much fewer features.
And that's an important distinction.
Offering credit cards, mortgages, loans, investing services and insurance may sound like the user is getting a really rich service, but in reality they're usually separate products.
The mobile banking apps are extremely limited in what they can actually do.
I can walk you through a few examples. Firstly, many of the banks offer a tab for basic spending analysis.
To objectively understand how important this feature is, I've outlined 8 common queries that you may have.
These are our tests, which we'll benchmark each bank against.
#1. How much have I spent so far this month?
#2. How much did I spend last month?
#3. What's my average monthly expenditure, over the last 12 months?
#4. How much did I spend on food last month?
#5. How much am I spending on Starbucks every month?
#6. What was my total spend in Starbucks throughout 2022?
#7. Can I view my daily balance in a chart?
#8. How much did I send to, and receive from, a specific person?
Before you scroll down to see the results, just ask yourselves which of the above 8 tasks you think are unreasonable.
I'd expect my bank to be able to do most, if not all of them.
✅ = Easy to do
⚠️ = Technically possible, but UX is poor
To reiterate, there's no intuitive way of working out how much you've spent so far this month, or last month, with either HSBC or Santander.
You'd quite literally need to look through a feed of transactions, and add up the values. It's shocking, and will have an enormous 🧠 Cognitive Load.
It's ironic that these banks are marketed as a financial companion, committed to teaching fiscal responsibility, without providing the most basic budgeting tools.
In particular, Monzo and Revolut excel in this area.
Look at the two charts below. From the red line alone, you're able to identify when in the month you're spending money, and can visually track how reasonable your budget is.
e.g., "woah, what happened on that day"?
I've been living with all 12 of these banks for nearly 3 years, and any illusion of feature parity is a thin veneer.
Let's finish with another example: the domestic payment experience.
When sending money, Barclays, First Direct and Santander don't pre-select the 'sender' account—despite only having one.
i.e., you need to click 'send from', and then select your only account.
Those two unnecessary clicks may be over quickly, but it's a poignant indication of how little progress these experiences are making.
I criticised these banks for this two and a half years ago—just think about how many millions of collective unnecessary clicks have been accumulated in that time.
When I first started the research for this publication, in late 2019, I believed that the well-funded global banks would have effectively copied the challengers within a few years.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Monzo, Starling and Revolut are so consistently better than their peers, that it's ill-fitting to label them as challengers. They're a breakaway peloton, not a band of chasing individuals.
Nor does it feel appropriate to label everything else as a 'legacy bank'—clearly change is happening at vastly different paces, and new tiers are forming.
The race isn't over, but it's time to rephrase the narrative.