3 UX ideas for the new generation of mobile apps

Financial services tech firm FIS is trying out three approaches to smarter mobile apps that any developer should consider

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Good user experience is hard to deliver, and it's especially hard in the world of mobile apps, which is fast expanding to include smartwatches, other wearables, in-car systems, and more. Not only are the device screens and input methods different from what computers have, but the contexts in which people use them also vary.

Last week, I spent a couple hours at the mobile innovation lab at FIS, the financial services technology company that provides the mobile apps and more for 1,600-plus banks, to see what ideas it's explored that might help any company get better user experience (UX) in its own apps. I found several.

Why look at what a financial services technology provider is doing? Because if there's an app that every smartphone user has, it's one for your bank. You probably also have a loyalty-card app, such as from Starbucks or Walgreens; FIS creates such apps too. These apps get high usage, and they live and die by their quality.

FIS's mobile lab team has been looking at apps for loyalty cards, restaurant payments, ATMs, and other such retail and financial interaction points. But some of its observations and experiments apply well beyond those industries, and they should be considered by any mobile developer, whether for smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, cars, and any Internet of things gadget.

Here are the three ideas that FIS has been exploring that I believe you should think about in your own UX work for mobile apps.

1. Think about workflow across device contexts

If you have an iPhone running iOS 8, you likely use its widgets, which let you place applets on the Today screen in the Notification Center. Most such widgets are informational, showing you the weather forecast, your bank balance, your data usage, and your upcoming appointments. Some do some simple self-contained functions, like translate a phrase from one language to another.

That's all very helpful, but if you want to do more based on the information you get, you have to switch to the actual smartphone app and essentially begin again. But why? FIS showed me a bank-balance app that will display the most recent payments and deposits -- with a twist. If you tap a deposit, it opens the bank app at the deposits summary page, rather than make you navigate from the banking app's home screen.

Taking advantage of that workflow context would be helpful in all sorts of apps, not only banking and retail. Developers should think through such useful workflow jumps in their notification widgets, as well as in their smartwatch apps (for those that open a smartphone app to do more).

2. On a smartwatch, go beyond the glance

FIS has been experimenting with apps for the Apple Watch that becomes available on April 24. It knows from its smartphone app research that people who can see their balance when making a purchase are likely to spend 14 percent more. Thus, the idea of making it easy to see your balance at a glance is a feature FIS suspects its banking and retailer customers will love.

The first generation of smartwatch apps, such as those found on various Android smartwatches, are mainly about notifications. Actionable activities on the smartwatches themselves are usually limited to Web searches, rejecting calls, and getting driving directions.

The Apple Watch promises more interaction possibilities. However, the small screen of any smartwatch makes interaction difficult -- there's precious little room for menus and buttons, especially if they're large enough to be tapped.

FIS has been exploring a couple approaches to smartwatch apps, both the traditional glance-style app that shows very basic info and the more smartphonelike app that provides more information and even actions as you navigate within the app. 

My belief is that people first need to get comfortable with using smartwatches at a basic level before they'll make the leap to more complex interactions. But I believe it will happen in the not-too-far-off future, so you should be prepared to think through the connection from first-stage glance apps to more functional second-wave apps for smartwatches.

3. Reconsider the QR code

I was struck by how much the mobile lab team at FIS relied on QR codes in its proof-of-concept apps. Except for the use in onscreen boarding passes, I thought the QR code era was over, a fad that was all about trying to get people to open marketing and sales pages via their smartphones' cameras, rather than typing in URLs placed on ads.

But the QR code -- especially when created on demand for one-time tokenized use -- has several advantages in the financial and retail space, the biggest one of which is near-ubiquity. Practically any restaurant's bill printer can print a QR code, so why not use that for a banking or restaurant app to get the bill details and even set up the payment for it? (That was one app that FIS showed me.)

Likewise, why not use a QR code on an ATM or a retailer's payment terminal screen to use as a one-time code for an smartphone app to sign into the ATM? That opens up smartphone access to the hundreds of millions of devices that don't have NFC chips, and it's much cheaper to deploy than retrofitting all those terminals with NFC or Bluetooth.

When combined with Apple's Touch ID or Samsung's new equivalent in the Galaxy S6, banks would gain greater authorization certainty and users would have fewer PIN codes to remember and one less reason to carry bank cards around.

Retailers have a less-virtuous reason to encourage folks to use apps rather than physical cards: They can collect much more data about their customers to then mine and resell. The Apple Pay system disallows such tracking, which is why few retailers have embraced it with open arms -- and why they are pushing the QR-based MCX CurrentC system instead. They're hoping to get people to use that before new financial security regulations help the more-secure Apple Pay purchases -- now limited to people with the current iPhone models -- take off.

Still, the ease of deploying one-time QR codes and the near-universal compatibility they offer is worth considering as at least a baseline way to authorize transactions and other interactions for a wide user base.

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