Today, apps are clearly the dominant way that mobile users connect to content on their smartphone. According to Nielsen’s latest statistics tracking media and online consumption, 87% of Internet use on smartphones in the U.S. comes through an app. That impressive figure still leaves a significant percentage of users who still rely on the mobile Web rather than native apps, though. At the same time, developers frustrated with the burden of designing and maintaining apps for so many operating systems may look to Web-based platforms for a more unified solution.
With those trends in mind, Corporate Insight has recently looked at mobile Web design from several perspectives. The latest Mobile Monitor Report, published on September 27, 2013, graded the mobile sites offered by 20 leading firms across the financial services industry. Also in September, Corporate Insight released a study reviewing four firms’ new public sites for tablet-friendly features. Together, this research sheds light on the current state of mobile Web design and gives some indications of what might lie in the future.
The Current Mobile Web Landscape
Nearly every one of the 22 firms in our Mobile Monitor coverage group offers a mobile site, but their investment in these platforms and the prominence they give them vary significantly. Just seven firms offer an optimized website experience that closely matches their apps with the most up-to-date design and capabilities. Other firms seem content with a lesser experience on their browser-based platforms than on their apps. Some mobile sites look outdated or have design flaws that have not been fixed in the years since their initial launch.
In our tests, 77% of firms automatically detect and route mobile users to their mobile sites, a clear best practice. These firms want to make sure current or prospective clients have a mobile-optimized experience even outside of their apps. Interestingly, though, 64% of firms – even those with strong mobile sites – include prominent promotions for their apps on their mobile homepages, another indication of native apps’ current dominance.
Our analysis of firms’ mobile sites also found significant functional limitations in areas such as investment research, trading and advanced money movement capabilities. For instance, Capital One 360 is the only firm that supports mobile check deposits on its mobile site, albeit through a different workflow. Images must be taken outside of the browser and uploaded via the mobile site, unlike the seamless experience apps can offer.
Some firms’ mobile sites offer advantages over their corresponding apps. Scottrade reverses the trend of limiting research on mobile sites with stock and ETF screeners that are not available on its apps. Fidelity’s mobile site support advanced contingent orders, international stock trades and currency exchange. Charles Schwab and Citi offer their self-service features on their mobile sites but not on their otherwise more powerful apps.
In most cases, clients who frequently access their accounts on a mobile device would be best served downloading an app. On the other hand, prospective clients’ first point of contact with a firm is more likely to be via a browser-based platform than via an app. Most firms seem to recognize this difference, and design the public portions of their mobile sites with a more promotional focus. Fourteen firms provide some form of prospect information on their mobile sites. In that same vein, six firms allow prospective clients to open an account through the mobile site, while only three do so on their smartphone apps.
The Rise of Responsive Web Design
One relatively new approach to building mobile-friendly websites is Responsive Web Design (RWD). A responsive website will detect what device is being used and fluidly adapt to a layout optimized for that screen size. RWD promises to minimize the burden of designing and updating websites for multiple screen sizes by rearranging and re-sizing content modules by pre-set order. The benefits apply as much to smartphones – typically the smallest screen size – as to medium-sized tablets, leaving the richest possible experience for a full-size desktop monitor.
Financial services firms are beginning to experiment with responsive websites, although at the largest firms, these capabilities are limited at best. For instance, Capital One’s public homepage re-sizes and rearranges the same elements for smartphone use as on a full desktop, offering consistent content and a sleek experience regardless of device. However, the homepage only adjusts to two screen sizes, and many links lead to non-optimized pages. Most other leading banks, brokerages and insurers we looked at offer just a few responsive pages buried within their sites, although adoption is slowly growing.
Some of the best examples of RWD come from the asset management industry. While these firms do not boast the same suites of powerful apps as leading banks or brokerages, an increasing number have invested in responsive websites instead. A prime example comes from The Royce Funds, whose site uses five degrees of responsive layout. A full computer monitor shows the most horizontal content, while tablets and smartphones in landscape and portrait mode use progressively smaller layouts rearranging the same modules.
While apps dominate mobile traffic today, there’s some reason to believe this may eventually change. Firms in all industries struggle to develop and maintain apps for multiple mobile operating systems. An effective mobile website should relieve this burden. As HTML 5 and Responsive Web Design open up new possibilities for mobile websites, it should become easier to create more effective Web-based offerings. While even now it’s industry standard to offer a mobile site in addition to native apps for the major operating systems, Web-based offerings could become more powerful and, eventually, become the main way that firms interact with their clients in the mobile channel.