The best online experiences employ a kind of magic — and one of the Web's leading conjurors says banks can learn the tricks.

Understanding and managing a bank account can overwhelm many consumers. But a well-crafted user experience can create the illusion of simplicity, says Margaret Gould Stewart, the head of user experience at Google Inc.'s YouTube. The popular video-sharing site is a prime example: it hides the intricacies of uploading and accessing a vast collection of clips.

Before joining Google four years ago, Stewart spent two years with Wachovia as its Web usability manager. Her experiences across different industries have helped her develop a sense of what consumers want from their online interactions, and how to meet those expectations.

At YouTube, or any properly designed website, "the complexity of what's going on behind the scenes is mind-boggling," but consumers "don't know — or care — for the most part how everything works behind the scenes," Stewart said in a recent interview. "And they shouldn't."

The problem YouTube solved was the tedious process of uploading and viewing videos online. There are many different video formats, and before YouTube, each might have required a separate browser add-on to view, meaning a video's format could limit the size of its audience.

"It was incredibly difficult to upload and share video online," Stewart said. "You had to have plug-ins and players and it was a real pain. … What YouTube did was remove all of that from the end user."

The banking equivalent of that hassle is the massive amount of fine print that customers must dig through for any new account or service, she said. Banks' "agreements and polices are complicated to understand, and we owe it to customers to make some innovations in that area."

The way to solve this is not necessarily to clean up the legalese, but to streamline the experience so that users value what they are doing instead of considering it a dreary step, Stewart said.

If the experience is redesigned, customers may even end up considering themselves more informed from the interaction, she said.

"In banking, the question is how do you want people to feel about themselves when they're using a particular banking product?" Stewart said.

With the current state of online banking, "what they're feeling about themselves is they feel undereducated, overwhelmed, scared," Stewart said. "These are not things you want people to feel. … There's a real opportunity to change the dialogue with customers so that they come away feeling empowered."

During her time at Wachovia (now a part of Wells Fargo & Co.), the Charlotte, N.C., bank was looking for ways to improve the user experience for visually impaired customers. The stakes were higher with this audience, because to them "online banking wasn't a convenience — it was the difference between having independence around your finances, and not," Stewart said.

Surveying users did not provide Wachovia with useful feedback, because the responses painted too bright a picture.

"We would say, 'Can you see such-and-such?' and in the survey and on the phone they would say yes," Stewart said,

Not satisfied with this answer, Wachovia visited these customers to get a better sense of their user experience.

"The lengths that they had to go through with magnifiers and all kinds of contraptions to literally be able to even pick up what was going on on the screen — that meant to them that they could see it, but to us, that was not at all the kind of experience we wanted to extend to them," Stewart said. "It was only in observing that we were able to pick that up."

To improve the experience for these customers, Wachovia began using certain technology standards in its Web design that made the online banking site work better with the special viewing equipment users hooked up to their computers, regardless of which Web browsers were being used.

One objective that banks should set for themselves as they change their technology is to make the benefits of any change clear to customers, Stewart said.

"Just asking them to upgrade their account because of some corporate initiative doesn't go over well," she said.

Though she advocates simplification of bank websites and language, Stewart said it would be tough to match the simplicity of Google's sites.

"The Google search experience is an extreme example of simplicity," she said, "and not everybody is going to be able to — or should — get to the experience where your home page is just an input box."

But even if banks cannot match Google's look, they can match the experience. With the Google search engine, "when you use it, you feel really smart," Stewart said. "All of a sudden you have the knowledge of the world … [I]f you've ever seen a kid use a search engine, it's the most empowering thing to them."

Just as YouTube usurped the established way of handling video online, independent providers of personal financial management tools are transforming the online banking experience into something more vivid and useful. Providers like Intuit Inc., Geezeo Inc. and Bundle Corp. are giving consumers a more interactive and sweeping view of their finances across bank accounts. Some of these companies sell their software to banks that want to host these tools on their own sites.

Despite this trend, Stewart said the transformation of online banking needn't come from startups and outsiders.

"There can be change from within," she said. "It's great when third parties do smart things, but I don't think that the banking industry should take themselves out of the game."

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