Bank apps need finesse with function – lessons from the gaming business

The smartest retail banks are making their apps faster, easier and more sticky. In this expert opinion article, Sharif Sakr (pictured) of GameBench, explains why banks have to deliver much more than just reliability to build their online brand.

If you read recent customer reviews of banking apps, or the latest rankings published by tech blogs, then you will probably agree with the following sentiment: A good banking app doesn’t necessarily do more than a bad one, but it does things better.

This idea that app quality is about finesse as much as function may still be quite new to banking, but it has long been the status quo in the world of mobile gaming. After all, popular games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga never stood out because they delivered unique gameplay mechanics (they really didn’t), or because they were tamper-proof or widely compatible or able to run without crashing. Instead, they rose above the competition because of their creators’ careful focus on user experience: things like visual flair and fluidity, instant touch responsiveness during gameplay, quick load times and power efficiency.

Successful game studios employ large QA teams (often up to 20 people per title) and equip them with sophisticated tools to measure these high-level aspects of usability, through both manual and automated testing. They know that this investment in QA is essential not only to the success of an individual game (because, for example, gamers will reject games that stutter or take too long to load), but also to the studio’s long-term brand value, which is what keeps the market receptive to its future products.

Banking apps have very little in common with games, of course. But they are moving in the same direction: towards greater finesse that conveys brand essence, via that privileged and hopefully permanent spot on customers’ homescreens. Therefore, QA teams working on banking apps may be interested in a few of the key usability metrics that their counterparts in gaming take seriously:

1. Visual smoothness

This is a key consideration for game developers and it’s increasingly becoming important to app creators too — especially if their apps involve lots of scrolling or swiping across media-rich pages.

The rate of animation, measured in frames per second (fps), is a great objective proxy for visual smoothness. If this rate drops to less than 30fps, perhaps because a phone’s graphics processor can’t keep up, then a user may feel — consciously or subconsciously — that a game is sluggish, unresponsive and of poor quality. On the other hand, animations above 30fps will generally appear smooth, especially if they are passive and require little or no user interaction.

However, it’s only when animations hit 60fps, or very close to it, that they will attain the same buttery smoothness and touch-responsiveness that mobile users have become accustomed from using the underlying operating systems on their phones. Both Android and iOS have user interfaces animate at 60fps, so this must be the target if you want to create an app that feels like it really belongs on a smartphone.

Most banking apps currently have very simple visuals, so it’s unlikely that they’d stress the GPU or animate at anything less than 60fps. Then again, at GameBench, we’ve seen relatively simple apps — such as retail apps showing lists of prices and static images — which had such inefficient layouts they did cause severe frame rate problems. It’s also true that banking apps are adding features, such as maps to locate your nearest branch, or page-turn effects, or animated promotions, where the 60fps goal is more likely to be compromised and the visual seamlessness of the app will be broken.

2. Wait times and static screens

If 60fps represents the ideal frame rate for animation, then 0fps represents one of the worst, or at least riskiest, aspects of a user experience. Put simply, 0fps is a static screen. In gaming, such static screens are extremely rare. Game developers are keen for their products to feel alive and responsive, so they rarely remove animations completely even during non-playable sections.

The same goes for the Android and iOS user interfaces. Both operating systems have subtle ways of keeping a screen animated and alive even when nothing is happening — Android has its animated wallpapers and weather widgets, for example, while iOS has its well-known parallax effect.

By contrast, most banking apps have extremely static interfaces, where 0fps is the norm. This in itself may feel quite jarring or old-fashioned to some users. However, 0fps becomes even more of an issue if it persists after a user input — at which point it indicates a dreaded “wait time.”

By way of an illustration, I used GameBench to test wait times in a popular news app (the Huffington Post). The image below is a shot from the GameBench web dashboard, showing a frame rate chart (and some other details) for the session:

Sharif-image1

If you look at a 1:14 on the timeline, you’ll see a drop to almost zero, representing a static screen that persists for almost four seconds. The screenshot in the top left shows what this static screen looked like — just a blank page without even a loading animation to reassure the user that something is happening.

Correlating this event with other activity on the phone, it turns out that this wait time was due a massive data download that occurred around the same moment:

Sharif-image2

3. Healthy vs. unhealthy power drain

What is the power appetite of a phone that is running your app? And how it is this appetite affected by different variables, such as other apps that your users tend to have installed and running in the background?

Game creators know that if a game hogs a user’s battery then it will be abandoned, because even the most ardent gamers won’t sacrifice the ability to stay in touch with friends and family. As part of the QA process, game studios are increasingly defining healthy ranges for their power consumption so that they can quickly spot and try to fix any instances that are outside of this range.

Banking apps aren’t nearly as energy intensive. However, as more of these apps employ features like push notifications and location tracking, the risk increases that a bug may cause rapid battery drain. So it may still be worthwhile for QA teams to discover and define their own healthy ranges — likely in the region of 1,400mW to 1,700mW on a modern Android phone — so that they can preempt such issues.

The Future

Forward-looking banks are already starting to think about finesse. They’re making their apps easier, quicker and stickier (in terms of customer retention) by delivering more responsive user interfaces (e.g., reduced waiting times), deeper OS integration (e.g., push notifications) and faster authentication technologies (e.g., Touch ID and other biometrics).

The reward for doing this is that they leave their rivals behind, but the risk is that they start to push devices harder with consequences for fluidity and resource consumption that they didn’t expect — resulting in breakages, bad reviews and worse. Mobile gaming QA may seem like a very distant cousin to mobile banking QA, but it offers knowledge and tools that can help to mitigate this risk.


GameBench (www.gamebench.net) is the industry leader for cross-platform performance testing on iOS and Android. The company’s suite of manual and automated testing tools enables developers and QA teams to quickly measure, visualise and compare the graphical fluidity, responsiveness and resource consumption of apps and games across different devices. 


 

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