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Under the hood of U. S. Bank's new mobile app – American Banker

Under the hood of U. S. Bank's new mobile app – American Banker

U.S. Bank has built a new mobile app from scratch that includes artificial intelligence-driven personalized insights, a mobile mortgage and a mobile small business loan. It’s the latest contender in the race among large banks to offer the most appealing customer-facing technology.

The new app, executives say, sprang from conversations with customers about their banking preferences.

“We realized two important things about our customers,” said Tim Welsh, vice chairman of consumer banking. “The first is, they do not wake up to bank, they wake up to live their life, and banking needs to be much simpler and easier than it has historically been. The second thing we realized was customers’ expectations of a bank are set by their experiences in other industries. You can push a button on your phone and a car pulls up, why can’t I push a button and get a mortgage?”

“Customers do not wake up to bank, they wake up to live their life, and banking needs to be much simpler and easier than it has historically been,” says Tim Welsh, vice chairman of consumer banking at U.S. Bank.

The bank’s software developers looked to apps from Fitbit, Uber, Delta and Facebook as well as bank apps in the U.K. and Europe for inspiration.

They also worked with 5,000 customers over nine months to “co-create” the app.

Six teams of app designers met with customers every week to understand what they wanted. They also conducted focus groups and did remote testing with customers wearing head cams and trying out prototypes. Sometimes they handed customers a pen and asked them to draw their ideal banking app.

The goal was to create an app that would be more than just a “dumb, transactional app,” but would help build relationships with customers, said Gareth Gaston, executive vice president of omnichannel.

“A lot of companies think about digital as a way of getting calls out of the contact center or people out of branches,” Gaston said. “We see this as a huge opportunity to extend that relationship that they have had at the branch perhaps and will continue to have, rather than having this cold transaction with a company that doesn’t know them.”

Gareth Gaston, executive vice president and head of omnichannel at U.S. Bank

“We see [U.S. Bank’s new mobile app] as a huge opportunity to extend the relationship customers have had at the branch perhaps and will continue to have, rather than having this cold transaction with a company that doesn’t know them,” says Gareth Gaston, executive vice president of omnichannel at U.S. Bank.

What’s under the hood

The bank has built a layer of artificial intelligence that gives customers insights about their financial lives. It’s based on technology from Personetics, but Gaston said the bank heavily customized it.

“Customers tell us, you’ve got this information about me, why don’t you do something with it?” Gaston said. “So we’re going to take that information and give some helpful insights that also give some actions.”

The insights will help customers meet their savings and spending goals, help customers stay under budget, and send travel notifications for cards.

Some insights are cautions or warnings, such as “We saw you had a duplicate transaction, you were charged twice by Amazon,” or “You may overdraft next week if you pay this bill on this day, do you want to move the bill or do you want to transfer some money?”

Others are more forward-looking, such as “We see you bought a ticket for a vacation, would you like to set up your travel alerts?”

A common question customers call the call center for is, “Is my check there yet?” The new app will proactively tell customers when their checks are deposited and the amounts.

The bank is launching the app with about 100 such insights, it will add more over time.

Some of the alerts are actionable, so for instance if an alert says a bill is due tomorrow, the customer could tap a button to pay it immediately. Or an insight could suggest the customer put a chunk of money in savings, and let them execute that right away.

The new app also has a new help feature.

“We’re geekishly proud of our help feature because if you’re stuck and you linger, it will ask you if you want help and it will start to overlay the page, it will green out everything but the bit you have to worry about and it will start talking you through it,” Gaston said.

The app’s AI layer will learn to customize the navigation bar over time to feature the types of things individual users do most.

The new app will support multiple languages, starting with Spanish.

"We have a great number of customers whose first language is Spanish and we’d like to service more customers whose first language is Spanish,” Gaston said.

The tone of the app is meant to be warm and conversational, to try to help build a connection with the customer.

“I got an alert through the app the other day that said, ‘Uh oh, you’re internet connection is not very good.’ it was very conversational and human, not "Error: internet connection," Gaston said.

Version one is an iPhone app.

“We don’t have anything against Android customers, we’re going to launch our Android app sometime in the summer,” Gaston said. “We’re designing specifically for each platform to give it the best possible experience.”

Agile development

The teams creating the app — developers, designers, product owners, risk people, and so forth — used agile development methods. This method of creating software in quick spurts will let them create monthly updates for the app.

“I was sitting in the back of one of the rooms [during a presentation by a developer] and the person didn’t know who I was and he said, ‘It’s amazing this bank is doing agile by the book,’” Gaston said. “It was great validation from someone who came from another industry who’s used to working in agile that the bank is doing it properly. And the talent we have is re-energized because they’ve got this great new way of working and they’re empowered and can get on with it without people like me coming in every day asking for status updates.”

To get the new app to work, especially real-time personalized insights, the tech team had to build real-time data feeds.

“It was a relatively big part of this,” Gaston said. “We had to get a new repository and engine to hold all the data and we had to get all the feeds plugged in properly and not rely on the old connections and have enough speed in that platform so it can interact and provide an insight. As we get a piece of information, we can fire the insight. If you’re going to tell someone their paycheck is here, you have to be right.”

Small business loans and mortgages

Last fall, U.S. Bank built digital loan platforms for small business loans and mortgages. This technology has been ported to the new app.

“Small business people got into the business because they’re passionate about their business,” Welsh noted. “They’re not passionate about asking us for a loan, but they do need a loan.”

At most banks, a small business loan takes two weeks of back-and-forth between bank and customer, asking for and providing information and documents, he said.

“It’s an incredibly frustrating process,” Welsh said. “We said that’s ridiculous. You want to run your small business. The last thing you want to do is spend time going back and forth with me about a loan document.”

On U.S. Bank’s website and now its mobile app, a small businessperson can complete a loan application in 6.5 minutes and in many cases it can be funded instantly, he said.

“One of our Bismarck, N.D. customers who runs a manufacturing facility said she started typing in her computer at 9:41, and at 9:58 the money was in her account,” Welsh said.

The bank has a similar story about mortgages.

“We realized the joy is owning the home,” Welsh said. “The pain is dealing with us through the process.”

The bank piloted this fall the ability to instantly approve a mortgage based on a customer’s assets and credit standing, which it can verify without the customer’s involvement.

“If you’re a U.S. Bank customer and you’re applying for a fairly standard mortgage, there is a reasonable chance that you will qualify as an instant approval candidate,” Welsh said. “You can be standing in the home of your dreams, push some buttons on your phone, and get an email that says you’ve been credit approved by U.S. Bank.”

To help customers anxiously wondering about the status of their mortgage, the bank built a new communication tool that’s based on Domino’s pizza delivery app.

“We asked ourselves, what organization communicates best with customers about ambiguous processes?” Welsh said. “One of the best examples of that is Dominos pizza. They say, the pizza is in the oven, the pizza’s on its way, the driver’s name is Mike. We said, if you could do that for a pizza, couldn’t you do that for something that’s important like a mortgage?”

The new app also contains a new credit card application.

“If you’re a customer and we’ve done KYC recently, you only have to go through six questions rather than the usual 30,” Gaston said. Customers can open a checking account on the app in 10 minutes, he said.

Editor at Large Penny Crosman welcomes feedback at

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