Last Updated on February 11, 2023 by John Prendergast
The wealth management industry has often struggled when it comes to general software design, and mobile is no different. The stakes are really high for both the advisor and the client, and turning complex and abstract information into simple, understandable terms remains a top challenge. A mobile app must be able to do that while also facilitating collaboration between advisors and clients — not an easy feat. While the industry may be a little backward in its effort to get to this place where all stakeholders are happy, Blueleaf is swimming upstream, releasing a mobile app that works just as well as it looks.
In the last few articles, we’ve outlined what a big challenge mobile apps can be for advisors and firms, the key elements to designing a great app, and information about the new Blueleaf mobile app. In this piece, Blueleaf CEO John Prendergast and Alloy Labs Alliance CEO Jason Henrichs discuss the impact of mobile on the wealth management industry and what advisors and firms need to consider as they embark on building their own mobile offerings.
Listen to the interview below or Read the interview transcript to hear Prendergast talk more about the challenges and benefits of designing a mobile app — and why simplicity is key.
Jason [00:00:05] Why is design so important? A lot of industries have figured out design is very important, but why? When we look at digital technology and financial services, why is it so lagging?
Blueleaf is running counter to that trend and putting a big focus on design. Why is the industry so backward, and why is Blueleaf willing to swim upstream there?
John [00:00:38] I’ll start with the first part of that question, why is design important at all? I think the first thing you get to recognize is design isn’t just how something looks, it’s how something works. It determines how you experience that thing. Because of that, it creates pain or happiness in what you’re doing.
When we’re talking about software at work, it means pain or happiness at work all day long. That drives cost. It drives the amount of time things take, it drives training, and it drives errors. Errors and omissions or extra time and the related extra cost are tough in an industry like wealth management that has shrinking margins and some real challenges.
One of the reasons it’s a focus for Blueleaf is because wealth management software has been in really bad shape design-wise, even way back when we got started about 10 years ago.
And unfortunately, for the most part, it still is.
Jason [00:01:50] What makes it uniquely hard to do really good design within wealth management?
John [00:01:56] I think that’s a great question. Wealth management stakes are really high for both the advisor and the client. It’s almost like medical services in that respect. The information is complex and it can be abstract, which makes it difficult to make it simple and understandable. The other part is that wealth management is a collaborative place. It is a collaboration between advisor and client that creates wealth management interaction. Advisors and clients have different needs and different levels of comfort with the information that’s being presented. They also have different levels of comfort with technology, generally. It’s a really challenging context to create great design solutions that deliver for all the stakeholders.
Jason [00:02:58] So isn’t it easy to go copy that, though? Someone else can figure it out and build a great design, so why don’t others just look at that example and do the proverbial fast follower?
John [00:03:13] You’d think that was the case, right? It sounds so obvious. “Hey, it’s a design…I’ll just copy it.” But we actually think design is a completely enduring competitive advantage.
Think about the iPhone. It took years for Android to get anywhere near the simplicity that iOS delivers. Why? I think it’s because it goes deeper than just copying how something looks…it’s also copying how it works. That’s a much more massive task than you might imagine. There’s a lot under the surface about how something works. The reason that so few try, is that that’s only a snapshot in time — how this thing works today.
To truly replicate innovative software design and allow it to evolve as the market evolves as customers evolve, you have to understand why things work the way they do. In trying to copy the design and get it to behave in the right way, you need to understand the guiding principles that govern that behavior, which is a monumental task. If you’re not an insider, it can’t realistically happen.
Jason [00:04:24] It sounds like one of the most important points around this is context. Even if you do try to copy an application, unless you’re perfectly re-creating that context, the design is going to be a fish out of water.
John [00:04:49] That’s exactly right. It’s that context that gives all the information meaning. Without that context, without understanding the why and then being able to deliver that to the end-user, you create a confusing experience.
Jason [00:05:05] Why mobile? Why mobile now? There are many things — like paying bills or transferring money — that naturally lend themselves to mobile. The business case for a wealth management mobile app isn’t as obvious. What is the new context that makes mobile so important right now?
John [00:05:28] Most markets have been mobile for a while, and that’s followed demand in those markets. Wealth management demand and interest in mobile have been slower to develop. It just has. But we’ve seen a pretty distinct shift in the past 18 months and pretty clear usage trends toward mobile now.
That probably reflects the journey of both advisors and clients to embrace mobile, especially for more critical or complex tasks. Both advisors and grandma have been using Facebook for a really long time, but wealth management is a more critical task. For that reason, it just takes longer for people to embrace. However, it’s really, really clear to us that now is the time to deliver something exceptional in mobile wealth management.
Jason [00:06:19] What is the biggest frustration that you’ve seen between advisors and clients when it comes to mobile? Now that we’re seeing mobile enter into the wealth management space, what’s still broken?
John [00:06:36] What we’ve observed is that mobile tends to simplify things in other markets and contexts, but in wealth management, it appears to be more of the same thing. Mobile in wealth management has been more of the same complexity and more of the same designs just pushed into a smaller box. I think that’s because software developers simply avoid making the necessary choices that mobile requires.
What we did differently and what we do differently is we start from scratch. We started from scratch in our thinking and we made design choices that forced us to simplify. That’s obviously led to a simpler experience, which we’ve been told is quite beautiful. There’s something beautiful in simplicity, and it feels good to use.
Jason [00:07:37] There was a recent J.D. Power study around mobile apps and their importance in wealth management. It said three very important characteristics mattered to the client: simplicity, security, and personalization. Why was simplicity so hard to get at in terms of the choices that Blueleaf was making?
John [00:07:59] Obviously, security is your starting point in wealth management. If you’re not secure, you don’t have anything. That’s your foundation rather than a focus. It’s something you live and breathe. Personalization comes from the data, so it’s inherent in the application. The data is all personalized to each person.
And simplicity requires very clear thinking and making very challenging choices about what to include and, more importantly, what to leave out. That takes a great deal of time. Most application developers don’t spend the time or aren’t willing to make those challenging choices. That’s why we felt it was so important to focus on the simplicity element.
Jason [00:08:57] It seems the fear of leaving something out that the client or the advisor might want leads to that “more is better,” which actually can be overwhelming. What advice would you give to developers or advisors who are trying to build this out in terms of understanding what features and functionality are important to clients and in which context?
John [00:09:22] If you’re trying to create a simple experience, then first and foremost, you’ve got to focus. So each application has to have a main focus — a single focus — so it’s not trying to do everything for everyone. Within that application, any view or any interaction has one purpose. What you see in many other applications is people build “shoulds” or “musts”.They throw everything in, making it complex, difficult to use, and difficult to understand.
Another important concept that we use is something called progressive disclosure. Sometimes you need to make available a lot of information, but you don’t want to just throw it up on the screen. What you do is you allow folks to ask for that information as they need it. Highlight what’s necessary, show what’s necessary, and then allow people to ask for more information on that. That’s counter to the way that a lot of web applications have traditionally been developed to reduce the number of clicks. But it turns out simplicity requires almost the opposite decision.
In terms of understanding your users, it’s really critical to use actual behavior — not their words — as a guide. So we interview users and talk to folks, but we don’t listen to what they want as much as why they want it. Then, we pair why they want what they want with their actual behavior. That is how you illuminate what’s really going on in an application. That’s been our approach. I think you have to have a point of view on what the application needs to do, and you need to follow that. That’s how you maintain all that focus.
Jason [00:11:23] It’s not often you hear “you need a point of view”. I think that’s a very important piece of advice for advisors and developers figuring out what they trying to accomplish. It’s important to really nail that point of view to be differentiated. What would your biggest word of caution be to an advisor that’s going to get started providing a mobile app or mobile experience to their clients?
John [00:11:49] The first caution I’d say is: don’t depend on your clients asking for this. Only the noisiest will ask, and by that time, will be too late. We just did a case study on BlackBerry. BlackBerry had very high customer satisfaction scores right up until the end. This is because clients don’t necessarily ask for what they want. They just go where it’s available. I think you have to take a look at the context and see the evidence out in the world, not necessarily within your own client base. That would be the biggest caution because that will lead you to wait. Waiting creates opportunities for competitors who are better equipped to deliver a digital experience that clients clearly want.
When you do decide to go mobile, you want to focus on simplicity. Clearly, we believe that that’s a critical component. That is the driving force behind our design to make sure that it’s something that clients will use. You find something that looks beautiful and reflects well on you, your brand. Also, start slow. You do this with a handful of clients and roll out slowly. Even better still, find a vendor that will help you with that rollout and that directly support your clients with their tech needs as that rollout happens.
Jason [00:13:16] One of the really important points you just made is that this is not a “set it and forget it” sort of thing — that you develop a mobile app and it’s done and we’re off to the races. I like the idea that you just need to start and start somewhere. So, where would you suggest an advisor get started to really just start the journey?
John [00:13:41] I think you’ve got to pick a mobile app that you’d like to roll out and share with clients. I think that’s the beginning. You have to make the decision to go ahead and do that. That’s first and foremost. In some ways, that’s the hardest thing, right? Inaction is the greatest enemy. So you need to get going. Once you get this in the hands of a handful of your clients, the rest starts to take care of itself. You’re going to see higher levels of satisfaction and engagement from those clients. You’re going to want to get this to other clients, and the snowball rolls downhill.
Jason[00:14:25] In getting this snowball rolling downhill, are there any pitfalls related to rolling out a mobile application to your clients? What should an advisor prepare for?
John [00:14:38] Absolutely. It’s a new device, and it has different support requirements, so I would make sure that I partnered with a vendor that could directly support clients with those needs. The last thing an advisor wants to do is become the geek squad, the team from Best Buy. You want to let tech experts do that support so that you can do what you’re hired and paid to do, which is manage money and help people grow wealth.
Jason [00:15:17] Fantastic. John, one of the things that became very obvious in the course of the interview is that, when advisors are looking to roll out a mobile platform, it is absolutely critical to find a partner that understands their space. It’s important to find a partner that understands their business on the client-side as well as the technology. I think the technology may be the least important. It’s about tying the design together to meet at the intersection of what the advisor needs and believes and what the client needs and believes. That is not insurmountable. As advisors are looking to become more mobile and more tech-savvy, finding that balance is absolutely critical.
Based on the discussion between Prendergast and Henrichs, it is clear that simplicity is a key component of a successful mobile app in wealth management. Advisors and firms looking to launch a new mobile app are well-advised to find a partner that understands the wealth management space just as well as they understand mobile technology. This is the best way to ensure that any mobile app offering is able to meet the needs of all stakeholders in a balanced, simple way.
Another key theme is the importance of focusing on mobile now. While wealth management has historically lagged behind on the technology front, advisors that embrace the trend toward mobile will gain a critical competitive advantage over those who remain stagnant in the status quo. Identifying the purpose and focus for a wealth management app — followed by action — will be paramount to staying ahead of the digital curve.
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