Building an app for your practice? Here's a guide for that

Register now

There’s little doubt that smartphones are becoming the dominant method for consumers to engage with service providers. So it’s safe to settle any previous debates about whether financial services companies should invest valuable time and resources into their mobile presence. The more relevant question now is whether mobile-friendly websites are enough or if companies should take the plunge and develop their own mobile apps.

At United Capital, we pondered this very decision toward the end of last year. After two years of focusing on a mobile-friendly client portal, we decided the time was right to create an app as well. This resolution grew out of the work we had already done to ensure compatibility with any mobile browser.

Although we initially believed a mobile-browser approach would be sufficient, at the end of the day we wanted users to have an exceptional experience on their devices, particularly cell phones. To make this wish a reality, the choice was clear: we needed to build a client portal app.

One major benefit that apps offer versus mobile-friendly websites is the ability to access native cell phone features. For example, advisors can utilize an app to send pop-up notifications to clients. Additional conveniences include the ability to dial a phone number with a finger tap and speech recognition that enables automatic transcription of messages. Beyond these elements, an app provides greater design control over how the user interface is rendered, thus improving the fundamental interaction between client and device.

Having made the commitment to create an app, our first step was to rebuild the website portal user interface from the ground up with a mobile-first approach. This initiative emphasized continuity in the user experience between our standard website, a mobile-browser version, and the future app.

After months of concerted effort, we recently rolled out the new portal with an enhanced look and feel, as well as greater focus on usability. We also just finished building the app and released it to the Apple and Android App Stores.

As financial services companies consider the quality of their mobile presence, the biggest differentiator has become whether they will make the commitment to build an app. It’s almost impossible to provide the highest degree of appearance and performance with just a mobile-friendly website.

Since cell phone screens don’t provide much space to work with, the experience needs to be incredibly intuitive. Mobile website designers try to address this lack of space by stacking menu items or layering features. But if it’s not done right, these elements become hidden to the user.

How do you make the experience as intuitive as possible and provide the most information without being overwhelming? There’s no easy answer, but ultimately if somebody needs a training manual to navigate your mobile site, you’ve missed the mark.

In creating an app, meanwhile, it can be very helpful to research other apps your target audience utilizes. Coming out with something completely different is often not a great idea, since users may not understand it and probably won’t spend much time trying to learn.

To that end, we looked at the apps of banks, custodians and other financial and non-financial services companies to see how they presented certain information and approached different problems we were trying to solve. It also pays to check out fintech startup apps, because they offered some innovative features that we considered putting into our user interface.

But it would be shortsighted to limit your market research to only the financial services sector. In fact, branching out to evaluate retail apps that are familiar to your target audience is also highly recommended. For example, many people are already familiar with the Amazon app, so there may be elements in the user interface and experience that you want to consider.

The financial services industry has traditionally been a technological laggard and that’s no different in the mobile realm. Financial services clients know how convenient it is to shop at retailers on their phones, and they measure fintech mobile offerings against the same standard. Wealth management firms must recognize the onus is on them to adapt.

Going forward, firms that don’t either build an app independently or find a partner to help will struggle to survive. Here’s the good news: They don’t have to go it alone. More turnkey technology solutions have become available and there are extensive opportunities to collaborate with a partner firm, custodian or broker-dealer to keep up with increasingly tech-savvy clients.

A great opportunity beckons for financial services companies to explore how apps can revolutionize the advisor-client relationship. That doesn’t mean the need for a mobile-friendly website should be ignored, however, because it remains an important potential avenue of engagement for clients and prospects. The bottom line is, anything you can do right now to enhance the mobile experience represents money well spent.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Mobile technology Apps Fintech Practice management software Client retention RIAs Practice management