Bank of America's latest mobile update gets to the heart of the challenge of treating smartphones as a primary channel.

Ensuring accessibility for a consumer’s desired task is becoming its own project for banks as the number of functions available on an app increases and more customers rely on third-party financial apps.

The bank's homegrown features must share space with third-party functions such as Apple Pay and Zelle. All of these functions have to work well and be easy to find if the bank wants to retain and expand its base of 22 million mobile app users.

Bloomberg News
Bloomberg News

"It's hard to pull apart the idea of whether the actual function or making it easy to use is more important," said Brent Reston, a digital sales executive at the bank. "You can't put everything on the primary navigation page."

B of A rolled out a series of updates to its mobile app last week. There are nearly a dozen new features, ranging from bill payment enhancements to new digital wallet features to car shopping. Since not everybody uses every product, the bank is attempting to take as much work as possible out of the process of navigating the app.

"That's where the user experience team can become critical," Reston said. "The mobile banking app was too heavy. Some users only have a credit card and don't use P-to-P. Or they use bill pay but aren't really a credit card customer. So the app makes it easier to get rid of functions you don't have."

For digital wallets, consumers can now add a B of A credit or debit card directly to Apple Pay within the mobile banking app. For bill pay, consumers can enroll directly and pay bills through the mobile banking app. As consumers become comfortable with these processes, the bank plans to flesh them out this summer, such as by supporting other banks' checking and savings accounts in mobile bill payment.

Bank of America's strategy is different from some other banks' as it does not offer its own branded app for contactless mobile payments. The bank has an open wallet strategy and partners with multiple providers.

"Rather than competing with Apple Pay and other similar wallets by launching their own branded wallet, they are supporting most [third-party] wallets and want their cards to be top of wallet," said Zil Bareisis, a senior analyst at Celent. "Allowing cards to be added to third-party wallets directly from B of A's mobile banking app is another important step in simplifying customer experience while ensuring security."

B of A's support of third-party wallets closely associates the bank's brand with mobile payments, despite the absence of a bank-branded wallet app, according to Rick Oglesby, president of AZ Payments Group. "When consumers are going elsewhere it's preferable to keep them as close as possible during their outside exploration."

Bank of America is also enabling credit card users to view and redeem cash-back and travel rewards from their home page, and it's attempting to make record keeping more efficient. Another feature expands spending and budgeting — previously offered only for checking accounts — to include credit cards. An additional update allows consumers to shop for cars and estimate monthly car payments.

Bank of America is bringing mobile payment and banking functions closer to together to accommodate the most common usage patterns. In 2016, the bank's customers made more than 25 million P-to-P payments and 105 million mobile bill payments, up 64% and 28% from 2015. Mobile account openings increased nearly 40% in 2016.

Bank of America is also attempting to make it easier for consumers to access multiple banks. The recent relaunch of the multibank Zelle P-to-P system also improved the interface. "Zelle is a good product and a sticky one," but "it was cumbersome to set up a new payee," Reston said.

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