It’s been a long wait for their customers but Absa has finally launched their mobile banking application. They’ve taken some criticism for taking so long and have left many people wondering if it’s too little too late and why it took so long in the first place.
Yesterday I attended a customer launch event for the Absa app. I was able to chat to a few people at Absa who are behind the app as well as their mobile and digital strategy. They answered some really tough questions from me and provided some insight and shared their vision going forward. Based on what I know and have experienced, I’m going to share my thoughts as an Absa client as well as someone who has a keen interest in the intersection of banking and technology.
Why did Absa make us wait so long?
Around two years ago Absa realised that its internet banking portal and associated technology was starting to become outdated (or legacy). They realised that they needed to embark on a long journey of rewriting it and planning for the future. The new system needed to support a new vision for Absa’s internet banking and digital strategies. Essentially Absa have spent time sharpening the axe by creating a platform that will allow them to roll out service much faster going forward.
The first service launched on this new platform was the new Absa Online. Even though I was able to create my own Absa app by scraping their mobile banking site, Absa insisted that they couldn’t take the approach of “re-skinning” on top of their existing stack for numerous reasons. The primary reason being that they preferred to do it right rather than rush it and sacrifice quality as well as lose the ability to leverage the power of their new platform going forward.
Was it worth the wait?
I’m not going to say that I am blown away. However, the sentiment that I have followed online suggests that most Absa customers are quite happy with the new Absa app. It checks most of the boxes that one would expect from a banking app. I think there are a few interesting and exciting things that they have done but I also have a few gripes. I will get into that in a moment.
I can empathise with Absa from the point of view that they have taken flak over the past while – even from me. Banks are not known for being great consumer technology companies or moving fast at all. At some point they realised they need to get this out. In a bold move, they have adopted an agile approach and have committed to pushing out something new every 8 – 12 weeks. This first release is missing a few things they themselves would have liked to see go live but shipping was more important. We should see a few neat things in the next release or two.
Absa App – The Good
I’m going to start with the good stuff first. I think Absa have done some things right that will only get better with each release.
- Contact & Beneficiary Integration – Associate contacts in your phone’s address book with your Absa beneficiaries. I think this is really important. It finally makes digital banking feel personal again. I don’t pay account numbers, I pay people or businesses. It’s subtle but really powerful. Also, you can buy airtime for anyone in your address book without needing to remember their number.
- Quick Transact – The first screen after signing in presents you with beneficiares that you most frequently transact with or purchase airtime for. It speaks to their focus on users being able to perform actions within 2 taps. It’s also customisable.
- Basic PFM – Absa have implemented some basic personal finance management features. I like how they focus on the simple concept of money in and money out. There are a few different views but I really like the calendar view of money in and money out.
- Tablet Support – At least after all that waiting customers can also use the Absa app on their iPad or Android tablet. I actually think the Absa app works and looks better on a tablet than on a mobile device.
- Branch Location & Directions – The Absa app locates branches and ATMs near you by using you device’s GPS and can provide you with directions if you need them. It seems basic but this happens without the need to perform a search as with other banking apps.
There is also the ability to switch the language in the app between English and Afrikaans, the ability to use CashSend and purchase prepaid airtime or electricity quite easily.
Absa App – The Bad
I had a list of minor gripes but they all fall under one category, the Absa app’s overall design, aesthetic and in some cases usability. Before I get into it, I really want to stress that I’ve used all the other banking app as well and they all fall short in some way with regards to design, aesthetic or usability. Don’t get me wrong, they work and in some cases there are acceptable use cases of usability. However, I sometimes get the impression that some areas of these banking apps are designed by someone using a terminal.
The Absa app isn’t entirely ugly but it does appear inconsistent in many places. I don’t get the impression that somebody is responsible for caring about every pixel. There are a number of areas where alignments aren’t proportionate. I noticed a difference in fonts. There are scrollable areas that remind me of iframes which don’t always behave as expected, as in the case of viewing transaction history. The app also shows a loading dialog for most interactions which makes the app feel sluggish. I have yet to test its impact on data consumption.
Absa stated that they spent a lot of time on usability and I don’t dispute that you can perform most of the common tasks within two taps. However, I do think more attention needs to be paid to the presentation of information. As I said, it works and many people might say I’m arguing semantics. I argue that great design and attention to detail coupled with consistent usability patterns translate directly into usage patterns that, at the end of the day, affect the bottom line.
The new Absa?
At the event yesterday, I got the sense that there is a massive cultural shift happening at Absa. They acknowledged criticism both online and in person. They admitted that they didn’t meet their customers’ expectations and want to make up for it. They were genuinely honest and sincerely apologetic. It may sound strange but it was quite unconventional to see a bank making themselves slightly vulnerable and I admire that.
With this new energy, Absa seems to know exactly where they want to be and how to get there. They have made a commitment to delivering things sooner and more frequently. With over 30 000 employees and 10.9 million customers Absa is a big ship to turn around but I think they will miss the iceberg.
Irrespective of who you bank with, you have to admit that the next few years are going to be some of the most exciting in the banking industry and consumers are set to benefit.