How to design banking apps that work for all ages

Older people may be using smartphone banking apps more than they were this time last year, but banks should be doing more to improve their user experience

The death of cash has been heralded for some time and the coronavirus pandemic has seen society take a big step towards becoming cashless. Health and safety concerns have led to some businesses insisting on contactless transactions, while banks continue to nudge customers to rely on online services as more and more high street branches remain shuttered. 

For Yvonne, 82, the pandemic has meant using a smartphone banking app for the first time. Like many older people, she’s been heavily reliant on cash in the past and is not as familiar with technology as young customers. 

“My family has reassured me my money is secure, that nothing can happen to it, and I’m slowly feeling more confident using it [smartphone banking]. But I worry about pressing a wrong button and locking myself out of my account and losing access to my savings,” she says. 

With the pandemic making it harder for older people to go to bank branches, ATMs and post offices, many have had no choice but to adopt digital banking to manage their money and bills, according to the results of a survey by Mastercard, published in November. 

Fifty-two per cent of people aged 65 and older have used a banking app since the start of the pandemic, with 58 per cent finding them easier to use than expected and 23 per cent feeling more confident as a result. 

Designing age-friendly user experiences

Despite the Mastercard research also revealing that 88 per cent of people aged 65 and older think contactless payments are more convenient, 45 per cent said they will be less reliant on cash in the future, so the accelerating shift towards digital banking threatens to leave some older customers behind. 

Traditional banks are being encouraged to design user experiences (UX) that are more age friendly.

Peter Ballard, co-founder of Foolproof, a product and service design company whose previous clients include TSB, argues although traditional banks are known for running on legacy systems, it’s not the technology itself that’s holding them back, rather their “legacy thinking”.

He says: “Until the pandemic, the accepted wisdom was older people preferred traditional banking methods. What this ignored was how some older people have felt excluded from digital banking because it’s poorly designed for their needs or level of comfort with technology.”

One area where banks can improve their digital offerings is by considering larger screen formats and the devices they support, adds Ballard. Some older people use iPads as they prefer the larger text and may have difficulties in clicking a call to action on smaller screens. 

Screens shouldn’t be overloaded with information and elements should be arranged and coloured in a way that makes them stand out and helps older people to navigate apps more easily, advises Sabrina Duda, head of UX at human insights agency VERJ. 

“Older users may have worse eyesight or may get tired more quickly, so user journeys have to be as concise and short as possible,” says Duda, adding that while younger customers enjoy the frictionless nature of digital banking, older customers could benefit from friction being added into their user journey. This could be in the form of extra layers of authentication or verification to slow down the journey before the user makes a financial decision. 

Building confidence and trust

Another area where there’s plenty of room for improvement is onboarding. Liam Gillespie, vice president of design at personal savings app Chip, says the sign-up process needs to be as clear and straightforward as possible. Building an app that isn’t specifically for older people, but can be used by them – Chip’s oldest customer is 92 – means explaining things as clearly as possible and not letting the digital offering get bogged down by boring, financial jargon. 

Ballard agrees. Older people aren’t afraid of digital banking as such, but are concerned about making mistakes with their money, he says. A more streamlined, simpler onboarding process will enable them to manage their money with confidence.

At a basic level, older customers just want the same as younger customers: an intuitive, easy-to-use and simple-to-understand way of managing their money

Boosting confidence in smartphone banking is, ultimately, going to be key if banks want to bridge the digital divide and ensure older people don’t become unbanked. According to the Access to Cash Review, the UK’s cash system has reached a tipping point and is likely to be obsolete by 2035, with fewer than 10 per cent of transactions being cash based by the end of this decade.

As vital as it is for banks to improve their digital UX, there will still be a need for them to maintain and offer traditional channels of communication. Some older people will always prefer telephone banking to digital banking regardless of how well they get to grips with smartphone apps. 

“When speaking about designing empathy, people often talk of doing this by making technology more human. But people misinterpret this as making technology like a human, and end up making bad chatbots which are overly-friendly that tend to frustrate or confuse customers” says Ballard. “Designing empathy means allowing customers to speak with a real human when they need to.” 

That said, the needs of older customers shouldn’t be overstated. Security, stability and access to advice and support are what customers need to trust their bank, regardless of their age. 

“At a basic level, older customers just want the same as younger customers: an intuitive, easy-to-use and simple-to-understand way of managing their money,” Ballard concludes.