A decade after smartphones changed computing for most people, so many apps have been made that it seems there’s always someone in a coffee shop working on one.
But for a company like U.S. Bank, the creation of a new app is so complex — and so important — that it took thousands of people and a new process for getting things done. This week, the company will roll out the new app, first for users of Apple products and soon after for Android-based gizmos.
The app reflects not just the latest technical advancements but also new ideas about where the relationship between banks and customers is going. Executives at U.S. Bank want to be the first place their customers think about for managing money and designed the app for customers to use for nearly every facet of personal finance.
“If we’re going to be really helpful, we have to be really quite central in their life,” said Gareth Gaston, the senior executive who led the core group of about 250 people in building the app. “We can’t be a passive afterthought.”
Like many businesses, U.S. Bank, the nation’s fifth-largest bank and the main unit of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, is in the midst of a digital makeover, delivering more of its products and services via computers, mobile gadgets and always-available networks.
Just last summer, the company crossed a threshold when it reported that more than half of its retail bank customers did business with it digitally, either through its website or mobile devices. Also last year, the company rolled out a small-value consumer loan product that could only be applied for via digital avenues, which made the loan affordable for the company to offer.
But innovation is rapid in financial services. U.S. Bank and other traditional banks face enormous pressure in every line of business from firms that started out as digital-only providers of services. Some have grown huge, like Quicken Loans in mortgages, and others are still climbing, like Kabbage in small business loans and Betterment in retirement savings.
The need to keep pace has helped fuel a recent spate of mergers among midsize banks, including the mashup of Plymouth-based TCF Financial Corp. with Detroit-based Chemical Financial Corp. that was announced in January. For U.S. Bancorp, it has required raising its capital spending on technology in recent years.
Andy Cecere, the company’s chief executive, told investors in January, “Technology and innovation investments, such as digital, data analytics and real-time payment capabilities remain a priority for us.”
Much of the outcome of that spending is seen and experienced only by the company’s employees. The new app is a more visible result and, in coming years, may prove to be a key factor in U.S. Bank’s ability to attract and retain consumer customers.
Executives in late 2017 began batting around ideas for replacing U.S. Bank’s current app, which was introduced four years ago and has been updated monthly since.
“It wasn’t that we thought we didn’t have a good one,” Gaston said. “It was more that customers are going to need a fundamentally different experience.”
As the consensus grew internally toward building a new app early last year, executives also realized that they would need a new process to build it quickly and test it widely.
Often, a relatively small group of designers and software specialists build an app with their own ideas and then have it tested. U.S. Bank decided to build the app in a process known as the Agile Method, a widely used model for larger software projects in which teams work in incremental sprints, then meet regularly to spot problems and adjust schedules.
Ultimately, about 250 people were involved in the main work that began last summer. Another 250 or so weighed in with ideas and other forms of feedback. The core group was spread on six teams, each responsible for a particular customer experience in the app, such as opening an account or applying for a mortgage.
While they adhered to programming language and design standards, the responsibility for developing features inside the app often had to be sorted out. Every few weeks, about 180 or so of the programmers gathered in a room for a couple of days, put six sheets on the wall and mapped out their progress with strings and Post-it notes. Often, the meetings result in a resetting of priorities and tasks.
“You have all the resources there debating,” said Tom Michel, a longtime customer-experience executive at the bank. “Can we do that? Do we have the time? We’ve got a dependency here. We’re not going to make it this month. Do we have the capacity to move something else?”
Since late fall, the meetings have been shaped in part by feedback from about 5,000 U.S. Bank employees around the country who have been given early versions of the app to test.
At the last such meeting in late February, the six teams and their leaders agreed on goals and responsibilities for the first updates to the new app, which will likely happen in May.
The decision to embrace the Agile Method, Gaston said, has made it easier for U.S. Bank to attract more people with experience in software companies. As well, the company has been remaking five floors of U.S. Bank Plaza, one of its main offices in downtown Minneapolis, to be more attractive to tech workers.
“To them, they don’t feel like they’re joining a stodgy bank,” Gaston said. “We’ve got this great environment we’re building. We’ve got the work method they’re used to.”
The biggest new feature in the app will be what the bank’s executives are calling “insights,” notifications and suggestions that will appear based on the customer’s patterns. In a note to customers last week, U.S. Bank wrote the new app will provide “recommendations to anticipate your daily and future money needs.”
The app will categorize spending, for instance, and help customers develop budgets and understand their habits better. For users of dedicated budgeting apps, that won’t seem new but U.S. Bank is betting it will change the habits of many customers.
In tests, some users are pushing the company to go even further by incorporating voice commands. U.S. Bank already offers services on all three voice assistant platforms, Google’s Home, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.
“We’ve got a big list of things we’d like to do. We still have a few gaps to competitors we’d like to fill, but there’s not many of those left,” Gaston said.
“We fully expect that when we roll this out, customers will be enlightened by the possibilities of what could be, and we’ll get bombarded by feedback of what we could do more of and better.”