The usability of money

Money is software, and we are all coders. Its usability requirements don't end at the edge of the screen.

Scene 1

Bank’s IVR Phone System: “Press 3 to report a lost or stolen credit card.”
Me: [3]
BIVRPS: “Thank you.  Hold on a moment while we connect you with the next available representative.  Please have your credit card available during this call.”

Scene 2

Me: "I noticed the teller withdrew funds from the wrong account when I went to the branch on my trip to the US. I had specified that I wanted to withdraw funds from my US Dollar account."
Branch Manager: "Oh, that's probably because our bank tellers in the US can't even see US Dollar accounts for Canadian customers."

Having experienced both of these farcically non-user-centered scenes in the past week, I have had occasion to remember that banking is the first area in which I noticed a fundamental truth of my profession: User Experience extends far beyond User Interface.  

Living in Silicon Valley 15 years ago, I switched, ambivalently and reluctantly, from a small local bank to a monster national one.  I braced in preparation for feeling a piece of my soul sucked out of me as if I were a Podling from The Dark Crystal.

Instead, I found myself overwhelmingly consoled by the improvement I experienced in banking usability.  Every online transaction took two – two! – fewer clicks than at my old bank.  Time-outs were nice and friendly, and they offered me the chance to continue.  But that wasn’t all: ATMs also saved me steps, and what is more, they saved me from myself by waiting to give me my money until I’d retrieved my card.  And (in those pre-smartphone days) bank branches provided TVs to those in line to wait for a teller.

Clearly, someone high up in the huge structure of this financial giant got the concept of holistic usability culture – the experience of using their institution for one’s money was enhanced and ameliorated in so many ways that it couldn’t all be coincidence.  (When I moved across the country in 2004 and kept this bank, I found the same level of attention to usability – within a few months, the ATMs even stopped requiring envelopes for deposits.  By contrast, my Canadian bank – at which I experienced the two entertainingly dismal interactions above – has finally done away with deposit envelopes this year.)

The usability of a bank is all of these things and more.  Sensible design of drive-up teller lanes and signage; phone response systems that ease customers’ frustrations instead of exacerbating them; mortgage paperwork that is legibly printed and intelligibly worded – it all amounts to an experience of user-friendliness or its opposite.  And in turn, humans’ experience of banking is a part of their holistic user experience of money.  

Money, of course, is itself code.  Actions and facts are translated into it and out of it, and it takes on values appropriately, while lacking relevant intrinsic value of its own.  If I imagine a digital transaction such as the placement of an online order for pizza delivery, the involvement of money in the mediation between the user’s finger on her mouse and the pizza entering her mouth is quite similar to that of the other codes involved (html, javascript, server scripting language, sql, etc.).

As such, it doesn’t seem so much of a stretch to think about finances in terms of software usability.  When producers and consumers spend, sell, and save, they are coding, in a medium consisting of 5's, 10’s and 20’s (etc.) instead of 1’s and 0’s – notwithstanding that the 1’s and 0’s are fungible enough to represent this medium too at need, as they do so many others.  It makes sense that each of us should seek the most usable environment for this activity.

Extrapolating still farther, it becomes obvious that usability is affected by the fundamental operations of a bank as deeply as UI is affected by software performance.  It turns out that the user-friendly monster bank I’ve referenced was, underneath it all, an actual monster, one that participated no less wholeheartedly than others of its ilk in the sketchy practices that brought about the financial crisis of 2008 and cost many their savings (somewhere, a Podling is crying a single tear).  The best UX on earth cannot mitigate bad data – or bad money.  

Still, banking remains one aspect of that larger experience of monetary “software.” Getting its usability right across the spectrum of interactions it represents is as crucial as getting ordering, fulfillment and support right for e-commerce or getting the seating and noise level right for a restaurant.

The next time someone at my bank tells me I can’t bank in US Dollars inside the US, I might lob a copy of Don’t Make Me Think at them.

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