Chapter 1   •   8 minute read

Built for Mars

Highlighting the difference between good and great UX.

Opening an account

Analysing the experience of opening 12 bank accounts.

Photograph by Built for Mars

On average, people stay with their bank for 17 years—which implies that it’s either too much effort to switch, or that they have brand loyalty beyond belief. People are more likely to stay with their bank than they are to stay with their partner.

A study from 2020 estimated that within 5 years 44% of brits will have a digital-only bank. But most of you reading this will already have an account with at least one of the challenger banks, like Monzo, Revolut or Starling. You probably also remember the experience being far better than when you set up your traditional bank account more than a decade ago.

But was the application process actually any better, or are you just wrongly assuming that your traditional bank hasn’t improved since 1995?

This chapter sets out to answer the question: is it actually any easier to open an account with one of the challenger banks, or it is all a brilliantly orchestrated marketing spin.

Summary:

The challenger banks were significantly quicker (in days) and required less effort (in clicks) to get an active account.

How they achieved this:

📱 Allowed you to open an account directly through the app.

⚡️ Changed the perspective of when your account is ‘open’.

🌋 Remove the worst part of the traditional experience.

🗂 Minimised data collection.

📦 Created a memorable experience when your card arrives.

A race to open my account

The industry can be confusing. Promises of “opening an account in minutes” are enticing, and might technically be true, but don’t reflect what we really experience.

In the real world, you’d probably only say your account was active when you could actually use your card. So I set the following parameters:

1.  I can use my card in a shop. This includes receiving my PIN.

2.  I have access to online banking on my mobile. This includes receiving my card reader (if needed).

And remember, none of the banks knew they were in this race.

Number of working days to have an active account 

2

2

2

3

3

3

7

8

8

15

22

36

Number of working days

builtformars.co.uk

As you’d expect, the challenger banks were considerably faster than the more traditional banks. And remember; these are working days, not calendar days.

But when we talk about how easy something is, there’s another metric to consider: effort required. Typically, products feel more intuitive—and easier—the less input they need. So I also logged every time I had to do something

Number of clicks to create an account

24

38

45

69

74

81

84

85

91

92

99

120

Number of clicks

builtformars.co.uk

As you can see, the challenger banks not only required the fewest clicks, but needed significantly fewer than even the best scoring traditional bank.

It took 5x as many clicks to open an account with First Direct, than it did with Revolut.

So the answer is yes, it actually is easier to open an account with the challenger banks. Maybe not significantly easier than every traditional bank—Barclays and Lloyds were also very good—but they were certainly easier than the average traditional bank. 

But how did they achieve this? The second part of this chapter explores that question.

🏝 Aim for effortless

UX tip

Design products that are both fast to complete, and require as little input as possible. Aim for something that feels effortless to complete.

What the challenger banks have done differently

How did the challenger banks require significantly less input? And what lessons can we learn to help us build better products in the future?

1. Opening an account via the app

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that all the banks have IOS apps. But what may surprise you is that not all of the banks let you actually open an account through their apps.

For this, if I was required to phone somebody, or visit their website in a browser, I counted it as a fail. I wanted to open the account using their app, and just their app.

Able to open account via the app:

Not able to open account via app:

Able to open account via the app:

Not able to open account via app:

builtformars.co.uk

Two thirds of the banks forced me to go to their website at least once to get an active account. Some of them let you apply for an account through their app, but then you couldn’t create your online banking credentials unless you log in through their website.

And it’s worth noting that parts of Nationwide, Metro, Santander and Natwest were not even fully responsive on mobile.

What the challenger banks—and to their credit, Barclays—have done is consolidate all of their processes. Sure, this is considerably easier when starting with a blank canvas, as these new banks were, but nonetheless, it makes a significant improvement to the experience.

🙅‍♂️ Responsive as a minimum

UX tip

There's really no excuse to have non-responsive websites. You will frustrate a significant number of your users if they're having to zoom in/out and horizontally scroll on mobile.

2. Instant access to Apple Pay

Whilst the challenger banks are also tethered by the speed of the postal service, they do have a trick up their sleeve. They allow you to add your card to Apple Pay as soon as your account has been approved. None of the traditional banks let you do this.

Sceptics may argue that this feature is a gimmick, because you can’t use your card in all shops, or to get cash out, but they’re missing the point. They’d be mistakenly assuming that the value of this feature was in its utility, which it isn’t.

Instead, the value of getting some instant access is in the feeling of progress, achievement and ownership. By giving some access to the account, and proving that it is open, it subconsciously changes the way you think.

Traditionally, you’d not say that you had an open bank account until you’d actually received your card. 

But the challenger banks have rephrased this wait as being “your account is open, see, you can use your card it right now, we just need to post it to you“.

This is immensely subtle and clever. That simple change of perspective makes opening an account with Monzo, Revolut and Starling feel instant, even if it really does take a few days to get full access to your account. You get an immediate feeling of ownership and objective success.

The key here is to understand that most of the time we cannot change external factors. The challenger banks couldn’t make the post arrive faster. But when building an experience you can change the users perception of that wait. There’s another analogy in the footnotes if you’d like more on this point.

This is immensely subtle and clever. That simple change of perspective makes opening an account with Monzo, Revolut or Starling feel instant.

🏁 Move the finish line

UX tip

Try and give your users the feeling of progress and ownership as early as possible. It will keep people more invested in your product.

3. Digital ID verification

Understandably, you need to prove your identity when opening an account. Traditionally, this would mean walking into a branch with your passport, or sending scanned copies of your ID in the post.

But what was a laborious exercise—and might’ve taken a whole afternoon—can now be done in seconds, from the comfort of your own home.

The user scans a suitable ID document, and then takes a photo or video selfie, that’s it. No trip to the bank required. So who actually utilises these services?

Uses digital identity verification:

Does not use this method:

builtformars.co.uk

Uses digital identity verification:

Doesn’t use this:

To clarify, there are some circumstances where banks will probably always have to complete at least some of the checks manually. But for your average consumer, like me, there are very few excuses to not use one.

Cost certainly isn’t the issue. Third parties like Onfido (Revolut), Jumio (Monzo), and HooYu (Natwest) provide this service for—in my experience, and estimating a bank’s volume—less than 50p a check. Possibly a lot less.

It’s obvious that this is such a major improvement on the user experience. It’s possible that proving your identity in the traditional way, would have been the worst part of the entire process. And because of a psychological heuristic known as the peak-end rule, it would have been one of the most rememberable.

🏔 The peak-end rule

UX tip

If there's one part of your experience that is particularly frustrating or requires a lot of effort, it's likely people will remember it, even if the rest of the UX was great.

4. Asking for a limited address history

The challenger banks also asked fewer questions. Let’s focus on one area: address history.

Banks all ask for your address history so they can run a Credit Search. But there’s some discrepancy in how much address history the banks ask for:

Only asks for current address:

Asked for previous addresses (more than 1 at least):

builtformars.co.uk

Only asks for current address:

Asked for previous addresses (more than 1 at least):

Monzo, Revolut and Starling only asked for my current address. Whereas every other bank required at least one previous address—normally asking for 3 years of address history.

In short, the more address history you provide, theoretically, the higher the chance that the bank will accurately find your credit report.

Which highlights an important trade-off:

1.  Ask the user to provide previous addresses — Increased input required, but a greater chance of finding their credit report.

2.  Remove the previous address fields — A better user experience, but a slightly increased risk of not finding their credit report.

This decision is not quite as simple as that and i’ve discussed the broader impact of this in the footnotes.

But, it’s clear that the challenger banks have made a conscious decision to prioritise the experience. This self-restraint is even more impressive when you consider that for many years companies have been trying to harvest as much data as possible—even if they never use it. 

It’s clear that the challenger banks have made a conscious decision to prioritise the experience.

Since publishing this chapter, Monzo has been in touch with me to talk through a third option—which is immensely clever. They will ask for one address, run a search, and if they cannot find you, they’ll then ask for more.

I’m unsure at this point if the other challenger banks have done the same—but it’s entirely possible. Mitigating risk in this two-step process adds technical challenge, but reduces the amount of input required from the user in many cases.

⚖️ Minimal data collection

UX tip

Every input, field or interaction should have a real purpose. Keep your experiences light and they'll generally feel better.

5. The welcome letter

Receiving your card in the post is an experience—or rather, it’s an opportunity for the bank to create an experience that you remember positively.

It’d be foolish for a bank to downplay the impact that this letter has. It’s not just a piece of paper, it’s the moment your digital actions become physical. Let’s focus on just one element that they all have in common: the envelope.

If I asked you to imagine the most boring envelope you could, it’d probably be a plain white rectangle with ‘Private and confidential’ written on it.

And which of our banks used this exact envelope?

Arrived in that boring envelope:

Did not arrive in a boring white envelope:

builtformars.co.uk

Arrived in that boring envelope:

Did not arrive in a boring white envelope:

I’m not sure there could be a more literal example of these banks trying to look different. They’re not just sending their cards out in less boring envelopes, but in envelopes you probably haven’t seen very often.

Monzo
Revolut
Starling

All 3 of the challenger banks have sought to create an experience that feels different. Something that—before you even open it—signals “we are not your typical bank”.

Personally, my favourite is Monzo’s, because it’s brilliance is in the subconscious comparison you’ll make when picking it up. When was the last time you received a letter in a blue envelope? Possibly never. If you did it would have been probably a birthday card from a friend.

Building memorable experiences don’t need to be expensive. The distinction is in the detail. In this case, it was as simple as using a coloured envelope.

And if you’re in any doubt over the opportunity missed here, try searching Twitter for “Starling card arrived”, then “HSBC card arrived”.

📦 Be different

UX tip

The user experience transcends into the physical world, and disruptive companies can benefit from looking different. Consider everything an opportunity to make an impact.

Conclusion

It’s not even close: opening an account with any of the challenger banks, is considerably better than with any traditional bank. 

In this chapter I’ve highlighted 5 things they’ve done differently, but there are a lot more. Other than Barclays—who I was really impressed by—the traditional banks have a lot of catching up to do.

I know you’ll want me to pick a winner between Monzo, Revolut and Starling—as I will in later chapters—but there was very little between them here. Whilst Monzo took nearly twice as many clicks to open an account than Revolut, Monzo actually opened my account faster. Meanwhile, Starling was consistently good throughout all the tests.

I’d probably give all 3 of them a very similar score.

There’s more FinTech analysis like this coming soon.

Leave your email here and you’ll get it straight to your inbox. 👀

There are more chapters to dive into:

ONE

It took 18x longer to open an account with HSBC that it did with Monzo.

8 min read  ·  May 21

TWO

Payment notifications were at least 2x faster with the challenger banks, and in some cases 100x faster.

10 min read  ·  May 28

⚡️ Includes 12 case studies

THREE

There were the only 3 banks to send notifications when someone attempted to use a frozen card.

6 min read  ·  Jun 4

⚡️ Includes 10 case studies

FOUR

It cost at least £20 to send £1 (GBP) to a US bank (USD) with three banks.

8 min read  ·  Jun 11

⚡️ Includes 12 case studies

FIVE

It took nearly 4x longer to authorise an Open Banking payment with Lloyds than it did with Starling.

8 min read  ·  Jun 18

⚡️ Includes 10 case studies

SIX

Revolut only ever replied to 20% of my live chat support messages, and don’t have a phone line.

9 min read  ·  Jul 2

Footnotes

Here are some things I felt important to explain, but are non-essential

The effect of Covid-19 on opening an account

It’s worth mentioning that I opened the accounts in early March, just before the Covid-19 pandemic really took hold in the UK. So whilst some delay can be attributed to this—and fairly—all the banks had the same external circumstances.

Take HSBC for example; they took 53 calendar days to send me my card. Do I believe that HSBC normally take this long? No, not at all. Clearly I’ve experienced an abnormally poor service, but I don’t think this is reflective of their typical account opening process.

However, I do believe that the results illustrate a trend of the challenger banks being faster to open an account.

Application rules

In an ideal world I’d submit all 12 of my banking applications at exactly the same time. Then, it’d be a true race about which card arrived first. However, I knew this wouldn’t be possible—partly because applying for the accounts took days.

So, in an attempt to be as scientific as possible I set the following parameters:

1.  I only applied for accounts before 1.30pm. This gave each bank at least the afternoon before the ‘clock started’. None of the banks knew about this test.

2.  If post arrived on Saturday, I counted it as arriving on the Friday. This was because although Saturday is not a ‘working day’, post still arrives. It makes it fairer to banks who didn’t post on a Friday—and therefore would have an extra day of post.

3.  I used exactly the same personal information for each. I opened all the accounts in my own name to control more of the variables.

4.  I was never the bottleneck. Some of the banks needed to speak with me on the phone. As soon as I was notified, I’d call. The application was never waiting for my action for more than an hour.

What I classed as being an ‘active’ account

I had to set some parameters of what ‘active’ meant:

1.  I have access to online banking on my mobile. This includes making a payment through the app.

2.  I have an active card. I can go to a shop and actually use my card.

Number of clicks to create an account

In order to fairly compare each bank, I had to set some ground rules:

1.  I only included necessary clicks within drop downs or selectors. Or rather: I didn’t count all the clicks/taps it took for me to scroll to the bottom of a ‘country select’ dropdown. This would have been too hard to standardise. 

2.  I only include ‘correct’ clicks. I didn’t include all the times validation failed and I had to re-complete them.

3.  I didn’t include clicks while completing fields. I.e, there were no clicks counted while typing on the keyboard.

4.  I always took the quickest possible route. If something was optional, I’d skip it.

Getting instant access to Apple Pay, and why it’s so influential

Here’s another way to consider the same technique:

Imagine that you’ve just ordered two new inventory cars, and they’ll both take 3 months to be delivered. 

The sellers of Car A tell you that they’ll be in touch in 10 weeks to arrange delivery. They give you a firm handshake, offer you one final disgusting coffee and you leave. 

The sellers of Car B do the same thing, and the coffee is no better, but they also give you your vehicle identification number (VIN) on the spot. They tell you that you can now go online and register the vehicle.

When you go home, you’ve got nothing to do for Car A. You just have to wait. You know you own the car, because you have the paperwork, but that’s it.

Car B, on the other hand, has a VIN—or more humanly, it has a name. Somewhere out there is a car with your VIN. You can almost picture it. Also, when you go online to register it you’re allowed to join the ‘members only‘ forum. You can now talk to other people about your car.

An economist would probably say that because neither of your cars have arrived, and you’re getting no utility from either of them, that their value is the same to you. But that’s wrong.

The small step of having a VIN gives you the feeling of ownership. You will feel like you’re closer to getting the car. Talking to other owners in the forum makes you feel like an owner.

This is what getting instant access to a virtual card does. It gives you the feeling of progress, the feeling of ownership.

Asking for limited address history, and the impact on a credit search

In short, banks collect information about you and then send it to a Credit Reference Agency (CRA). The CRA will then send the bank a credit report, which indicates how ‘credit worthy’ you are. 

The banks use this report to decide how much money they should lend you. It might even be so bad that you’re not allowed to open an account at all.

The CRAs—like Experian—have a record for almost everyone, but they need to find the right one. If you searched for ‘James Smith‘ you’d find lots of people. This is why they ask for your address too—it allows them to filter these results.

You exist somewhere in their database. The challenge is finding the real you.

But the CRA databases aren’t perfect. In fact, they’re often missing a lot of data. For example, they’re unlikely to know everywhere you lived as a student.

So, most banks and lenders will ask for 3 years of address history. They then send multiple addresses to the CRAs, and effectively say: “Find James Smith who lived at these addresses at these times“. Like a game of data battleships—they’re increasing the number of shots they get.

Incorrectly identifying someone inherently has risks. The bank could lend money to somebody who wasn’t credit worthy. That’s where the trade off is.

But, it’s important to clarify: I do not know what technology these banks have behind the scenes. They may well be mitigating the risk elsewhere, or run deeper credit searches when you apply for a loan.

References

People stay with their bank for 17 years — reference.