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Users like spending trackers, not bank apps

Study says best financial software comes from independents

Griping about a big, faceless bank is one the American consumer's favorite pastimes. So it's probably no shock that mobile apps offered by those banks don't fare all that well.

A new study of consumer reviews by Boston-area mobile analytics company Applause shows that smartphone apps from some prominent banks are among the least-loved in the finance category.

Apps that help consumers track their spending and bills, along with services that help users keep tabs on income taxes and look for homes, did far better in the Applause rankings.

Independent analysts said it was no surprise that large bank apps fared poorly in the Applause survey.

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Bank executives know they need to offer better digital tools, said Peter Wannemacher, a digital finance analyst with Forrester. But most still haven't put together an app that trumps what an independent developer can produce.

"You can get done what you need to get done via mobile. You're not literally unable to pay a bill," he said. "But they're just adequate."

The Applause study sifted through nearly 3 million reviews and ratings in the app stores for Google and Apple's smartphone platforms. It narrowed the pool of apps down to 45 of the most-reviewed apps dealing with banking, payments, bills, and other financial tasks.

The three most popular apps in Applause's analysis were all built by independent developers: Spending Tracker, Credit Karma, and Goodbudget Budget Planner. Fourth place went to Redfin, a real estate company that lets users browse listed homes.

The highest-scoring bank app by far was Capital One Wallet, with an average quality score of 80 out of 100 under Applause's ranking system.

Big names in banking were far more common on the low end of the score tally: PNC, Citi, and HSBC all had scores under 30, while Wells Fargo, TD Bank, and Bank of America all got a score of less than 40 in Applause's report.

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Wannemacher said some of the negative response toward banking apps is related to overall dissatisfaction that consumers feel with big banks: "People don't tend to like banks. And the bigger they are, the more they hate them."

But customers still want the institutions holding their money to give them better digital options.

"When we ask people who they want to offer financial management tools, number one with a bullet is 'my bank or credit union,' " Wannemacher said. "There's a disconnect there. Clearly, the problem is that banks haven't made the experience convenient enough. Or to be more blunt about it, good enough."

There is evidence that banks are experimenting with some of the more cutting-edge capabilities offered by smartphones. Banks in New England are among the financial institutions nationwide that are offering apps that can operate an ATM, and fingerprint-sensing technology in smartphones that can replace old-fashioned security questions for unlocking accounts.

Stessa Cohen, a banking analyst with Gartner, said the kind of functions offered by personal financial management apps are often better suited to use on a mobile screen, something banks can learn from independent developers.

When it's time to dive more deeply into their household accounts, plenty of consumers still want to sit down at a keyboard and really dig into the details, Cohen said.

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"Do you really want to analyze your expenses over the last few months on your smartphone? Or do you want to just get a balance, or see how much time you have until payday?" she said. "That's the trick that banks have to watch out for."


Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.