Category: Reckons

Just another brick in the walled garden

We live in an age where we benefit greatly from some of the most open and connected technologies ever created. The Internet and the the world wide web built on top of that, have given rise to all manner of technological and societal change. They have seen corporate giants rise upon the shoulders of open and connected, yet they all seem headed towards ever more closed gigantic networks where inter-operation is always at a bare minimum and usually only to benefit themselves, they will let you share outwards in some cases but not all, they will let content in but it must come in through their chosen and tightly controlled methods.

Now I suspect a lot of people will be thinking the answer is blockchain/distributed ledgers/new rails etc. and they might be right but I have avoided mentioning them in this piece. I have avoided them because I am interested in the fixing of the existing system rather than its wholesale replacement. Longer term perhaps new rails will exist but that will not be for decades at least.

I have long desired for banking to be far more open and inter-operable. Open APIs are on the horizon in Europe driven by regulations such as the second Payments Service Directive (PSD2) and UK government initiatives such as the Open Bank Working Group backed by HM treasury. I worry however that these are fragile initiatives even if they are mandatory regulatory changes. The lack of implementation clarity allows for too many opportunities to brick up experiences. Be that making accessing your own transaction data so complicated it is better to screen scrape the data than use official methods. Payment options that are so complex in using that plastic will always be preferred. The closed nature of banking remains even when the rules say open up because of UX disasters.

Mobile payments are also showing worrying trends in heading down these paths. Mobile payments are here yet not quite evenly distributed at the moment. They are tied largely to handset makers (Apple and Samsung Pay), or telcos, or existing card schemes. Interoperability remains patchy at this early stage as the market finds its feet. You need to have phone X or operating system Y and then you need to have the luck of the gods in finding merchants that actually accept your chosen payment method. The big boys are playing for keeps, they want to own the ecosystem as much as possible and they want to lock in the consumer to this perfectly constructed world. The new tech giants are just doing what banks have always done. Is it hubris that their global scale and technical prowess can allow them to succeed where banks have failed? Is it an us vs them story playing out? The new breed vs the old breed? Or is Apple Pay just helping the incumbents become more so? Technological progress is welcome but what is the end game and who will be allowed on the playing field?


My concern is that we will never get the interoperability I, and I am sure many others, desire. What if Sir Tim Berners Lee had patented the World Wide Web? Where would we be today? We have so many innovations limited by their lack of interoperability. We will surely never see a universal dial tone for say video or instant messaging. Even just something like presence, am I available to talk right now? Am I online? Am I in this country or that city?

We have had many great standards to help unify things but they are rejected at every turn and now lay dying. XMPP for messaging, RSS for all manner of content is an afterthought or seen as a historic anomaly. Anyone remember Open Social? An attempt to make interoperable social network components.

Those standards arose from a technical need to solve specific problems I.e. interoperability, and did so well but it is a problem solved that most companies would rather not have solved. Marketing money wants to know who, how many and how engaged the audience they are targeting is. The higher the walls of the garden the more it looks like a barrel and the more users look like fish fresh for shooting.

Those walls also seem to get ever thicker. Bickering between companies feels school yard level as they trade tit for tat blows. Whatsapp users being unable use their Telegram ID in their profile, Instagram and twitter blocking users/photo sharing and all manner of other petty nonsense. I guess when marketing money drives the company though then a barrel is the shape to aim for. What battles will we see between payments companies? Early shots were fired when telcos blocked software based payments like Google Wallet.

The telephone, fixed line and mobile talk too each other irrespective of telco provider, country or make of phone. This took both regulatory change to ensure networks and patents were used to benefit the greater good and avoid monopolies being formed. Email can be routed to any provider and software user due to the open standard of SMTP. Can you imagine if you could only send email to specific email clients Gmail to Gmail, Outlook to Outlook etc? Or Vodafone to Vodafone or Sprint to Sprint? (for some old enough they can probably remember what that was like). Now we acccept these closed networks as the norm as we all have Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and Snapchat and lots of other messaging apps. I strongly believe this should not happen with financial services.

History repeating

I cannot pay everywhere.

I cannot get my data from every financial product and use it with other providers or services.

I see this exact same thing playing out in the tech world playing out in the finance world with payments and financial data. Those with the most to lose want to retain control. Those with the most to gain (Tech giants, new fintech entrants) cry for openness but will they reciprocate this in the future once they have a market share outcrop to cling to? Can we build a set of principles and standards that ensure once banking data and payments are opened up they stay open ensuring more and more layers can be built upon them, web like.

I worry for PSD2 because of how the design seems to be happening. Loose guidelines, country specific translations and implementations. Who are the people designing these technical guidelines? Are they bankers or people that understand the web? Can the fintech industry build a solution better/quicker? A better fit for what we need rather than this design by multiple committee stuff that seems to be dragging on and on. Is this regulatory change ultimately just a stick to make the market come up with something better? Will it be OSI vs TCP/IP all over again? Working and well implemented code beating the 172 page page guidelines document?

Money moving is complex and risky. The governance requirements are huge. The liability issues byzantine. I just feel that if we see a few more companies getting some working code (APIs, Auth Methods, Data Standards etc.) then it will make a greater dent in progress. Companies joining forces could do a greater good than yet more committees I reckon. I like the work Xignite has done in joining forces with 21 other companies to form a Fintech API Revolution Ecosystem. I would love to see much more of this ecosystem building, how about just some simple principles or badges of honour for those that make APIs available in FS? Maybe we see banks and FS firms joining initiatives such as the Web We Want (The bank network we want?) Build awareness to allow more building, more inclusion, more access.

The tech giants have built their new gardens and we humans seem to love silos. We love to control and be controlled but these things ultimately limit the scope and scale of technological shifts. They seemingly ensure maximum value can be extracted by the corporate overlords rather than making something bigger, more open that I strongly believe would be better. Will we just end up living in a world where you are either a Google, Apple, Amazon, Alibaba, BBVA ecosystem person and have no choice otherwise?

The opening up of transaction data access and payments instructions is clearly a huge complex change and I have simplified massively but my main point is that walled gardens will lead to fragmented experiences unless you are willing to commit yourself entirely to a single ecosystem owner. The banks have been the ultimate walled gardens as they try to ‘own the customer’ instead of being truly customer centric. They would do well to understand this shift. Excel where they can and make it is easy or seamless for their customers to do business elsewhere. Think platforms and ecosystems not locked in and owned.

Ultimately what is the end game the regulators desire for PSD2? Stop existing incumbents getting an ever stronger hold over the European Payments market i.e. EMVco. To enable greater competition and allow market forces to create a beautiful open ecosystem.


I think PSD2 will eventually crack open the transaction data and payments markets in Europe and hopefully the shockwaves will be felt around the world. The changes proposed however are seen as a real threat to a great many very powerful players and what the country level implementations of PSD2 we finally see in 2018/2019 will look like is a concern. I think the Open Data Institute are doing well to take a lead in the UK but do they wield enough power? Do they have enough momentum? I would like to see more involvement from the W3C. I would like to hear more from HM Treasury and the Competition Market Authority and I believe moves are underway. Also from the governments around the world making openness key. The bottom line is I would like to see a far more open approach to PSD2 from as many parties involved as possible. There are so many people relying on it and it will lead a great change. That maybe too terrifying for those that enjoy the benefits of those huge walls today.

Unless cooperation is forced is the chance of it happening lost forever? Also is the wrong sort of force / design potentially even more harmful? There are industries that need a kick to get started and some industries that need a kick to remember their history e.g. Telcos. I want PSD2 to succeed in cracking the engine open but while the bonnet is up I want to be sure then when it slams shut it’s not all covered in glue and irreparable, licensed components and parts only, registered dealers the only ones allowed to fix and the DIY hobbyist i.e. the individual user is left out.

This all points to a wonderful opportunity for forward thinking financial services players, be they the incumbents or the newer breed but either way I want more of them to work together, to aim for something more open, flexible and altruistic like the web. Altruism and banking might not be easy bedfellows but if you want to be truly customer centric as most keep saying and to truly digitally transform then it would be a wise goal to aim for.

Failing the commuter

As I look to land a role in London I am also looking for some flexibility in not only working pattern but also commuting services. I want to do three fixed days in London (Wednesday to Friday) and two days from home to begin with. This means I will have to book travel and accommodation on a weekly basis for over forty weeks of the year. There seems to be a real service industry opportunity to help people like me in this position as I assume I am not alone in this pattern of working? Am I? So here are a few ideas that would make my soon to be life a lot easier.

Booking trains

I want to book two trains a week for the foreseeable future. I would like to be able to block book say a months worth of train tickets. This would also enable me to take the best prices available on those routes at my allotted times. At the moment this is a laborious process where I have to book each trip individually. Just a simple repeat this booking for next X weeks would be a fairly simple addition I would have thought.

In addition to this some decent notifications capability around booking would be helpful. ‘Aden your preferred route and time slot is at its cheapest price now and will go up in 24 hours to £x. Book now?’ That is a call to action I will be answering.

The ability to change up or down times of travel more easily would also be great. I often book the last train home to Sheffield which is a killer. It leaves St. Pancras at 22.25 and gets into Sheffield around 1.30. I wish I could easily switch to an earlier train sometimes. This would be a great realtime offer from East Midlands, ping me around 7pm ‘Fancy getting home two hours earlier for just £10?’ Sold.

Why are season tickets only seen as something people who travel every day would use? Why are there no season tickets for a few days a week or even a daily season ticket? I want a year/three months of Wednesdays to London and Fridays back to Sheffield please.

Booking reservations being sent directly to my Google Calendar is a very nice feature but I agree strongly with Ben’s post about why on earth they don’t include the reference number in the headline calendar entry. Fix this please.

Better yet remove the need to collect paper tickets at all. When are trains getting paperless tickets like airlines? An app and a QR code seems easy at the software level, the challenge is the barriers and ticket collectors handheld devices. I think we are a way off that yet for East Midlands trains but we live in hope so there is less rush and hassle at the station just walk straight onto a train.


Similarly to train bookings there is no easy way to block book hotel rooms. I have contacted several hotels to see if any deals are possible and they have quoted me ludicrous business rates which I could get cheaper from any search. Real missed opportunity to build loyalty? I am hoping to get two nights in London for round about £120…the cheaper the better though. Give me your tiniest windowless broom cupboard. As long as it has a bed big enough for me, a shower/toilet/sink and is relatively close to a tube station / my future place of work, then I will be very happy.

I have also considered AirBnB and I wish they had some more commuter friendly options. If I can’t find a regular hotel cheap enough then maybe a deal could be done with an AirBnB host. Try out their flat a few times, get to know the owner see if they will do a block booking off AirBnB at a better price without them taking a cut or AirBnB could build that service (bordering on renting rather than hotel use) and level out the service charges etc. etc. Maybe some sort of auction / VRM style process. I have £120 for two nights for x weeks in this sort of area, who can accommodate me?

Another nice plus would be the ability to store a bag in London. The ability to just leave a toiletry bag and some clean underwear/clothes/phone charger/gym gear/12″ Breakfast Plate would be great. What is the scope for something like that? Hotels? Helpful landlord in the AirBnB scenario, a locker at work perhaps or some sort of locker elsewhere?


Keeping track of what I spend in a month/quarter/year on travel would be a very useful service indeed. Basic Personal Financial Management features for a bank capable. Some service like Expensify could also help here but for ease, built into my bank would be ideal. One day perhaps. Come on Mondo et al.

I am sure when I actually get a job there will be other services I will want to make use of but for now these seems like the most pressing needs. Please someone fix them, especially you East Midlands Trains. If anyone has any pointers for services that can help with these kinds of requests then please do let me know.

Update: Simon White made this lovely observation. If only I had two wheels.

The female is more precious and resilient

I have a problem with USB C. It has been designed the wrong way round, inside out, back to front. The socket is easier to break than the cable. It seems a bit sturdier than the wretched Micro USB. I have snapped the pins inside Micro USB sockets on several devices and to repair means cracking the device open and soldering on a new socket. Make the cheap replaceable bit break more gracefully than the expensive to replace socket.


Apple lightning cables are the right way round. The cable will snap before the socket and cables are far easier to replace. Do Apple have a patent on it being this way round? Or are USB designers obsessed with getting things slightly wrong with an interface that does so many things right?

AI won’t absolve you

2016 will be the year of AI or so lots of articles, consultants, conference talks and tweets tell you almost robotically. I don’t disagree that the fields related to AI are starting to mature but we are a long way off from true general AI. Never the less this year will see a lot of people in a lot of organisations thinking they need to get some AI projects on the go. I worry for a lot of them. AI will not absolve you from design, effort, communication etc. etc.

There are a lot of fields underneath the banner of AI.

AI ecosystem

My worry is that artificial intelligence and machine learning as brands conjure up fanciful images of answers being produced as if by magic by these mega software and hardware beasts. Lots of things being conflated underneath the brand of AI. It helps fuel the hype it can also deform the reality.

AI will not be the answer to all of your problems. You can’t just AI away design problems. It might fix some issues and help you do some things you never could but it certainly won’t fix them all and it will certainly throw up some interesting new complex ones.

And talking of complex, complex software requires ever more complex skilled humans to understand and implement well. You cant just take all that lovely big data you have been hoarding for years and doing nothing of note with and fire it into these things and expect magic to pop out?

Without getting into the whole complex issue of bias built into the systems by the humans that design them, what does fake/machine learned empathy look like? Then again what is human empathy really?

There is definitely phenomenal potential in AI advances but it is still in its infancy and infants need a lot of adult supervision. They are capable of brilliance in between tantrum laden meltdown, soiled underwear, and refusal to eat what you try and feed them sometimes leading to spectacular vomiting.

“The business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. This is a big deal, and now it’s here.”?—?Kevin Kelly

Before buying into the hype get some of your best and brightest data science nerds and architects and designers to help you get a real insight into what will be involved, what outcomes you can realistically expect and ensure you treat it as an experiment rather than a sure thing. Like anything the more you put into it the more you will get out. AI will not absolve you of defining the problem you are trying to solve.

The people and companies that succeed in using AI well will no doubt be similar ones that designed mobile interfaces well, have simple and clear services elsewhere, get real data from their own data today. It just comes down to the old classic of spend more time than is reasonable defining the problem/making something simple. Spend less time than is reasonable hoping the robots will fix it for you is a recipe for disaster.

WTF is a millennial and why are banks so obsessed with them?

Is a millennial someone who has survived for a thousand years? Is it someone beamed to earth on the 31st of December 1999? A person who was born after the release of the  awful Robbie Williams album Millennium? Or the bogeyman for banking?

The word millennial It is bandied around willy nilly by people who mostly don’t fit into its vague definition. It is used as the threat that faces banks today ‘build services fit for the digital world or the millennials will leave and avoid you‘. It has more definitions than cloud computing and look how well understood and abused that vaporous vernacular is.

The Wikipedia article on Millenials clears it all up

‘Millennials (also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y) are the demographic cohort following Generation X. There are no precise dates when the generation starts and ends. Researchers and commentators use birth years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

I say clears it up, it says that they might be people born 20 years apart. Do you like being put into segmented pots with people two decades older than you? My parents are just over two decades older than me.

Another thing which irks me is that there never seems to be reference to any country of residence or birth. The term (and it’s oft used partner in crime Generation Y) seems to have originated from the US, not a nation renowned for its geographic knowledge or consideration *cough* World Series *cough*.

It seems to me that a millennial is a person of unknown origin, upbringing, sex, religion, race, profession who may have been born between 1980 and 2000 but they know loads about technology and we need to build digital services to meet their unquenchable thirst for realtime, anywhere access and control.

Why are they so important? Is it because they are wealthy? Is it because they are the biggest market segment? Is it because they are young (depending on your application the millenial age range) and cool? I have no idea why they are so desired and so important.

I think my main annoyance is that these mythical and ill defined people (actually have we confirmed they are humans?) are seemingly used to inform strategies and designs for financial services products and services (and so much more). They are the straw men (gender?) used to sell the need for digital services fit for the brave new world populated just by the millennials. I know marketing has worked like this for decades but it does not make it any less annoying to someone who does not understand it’s seemingly mythical ways.

Does this take us down a path where we are designing for these people who don’t exist? Are we distracted by thoughts of ‘Will the millennials like this? Will it make us look attractive to the millennials?’. Is it marketing campaign targeting segmentation applied to far more than it should be?

Should we be so focused on them at all? I mean are they really that important? Great opening paragraph from this Guardian article

Falling birthrates and the lengthening lives of baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 produce an extraordinary statistic. On current trends, from now until 2037, while the numbers of those aged 15 to 64 in the UK will grow on average by 29,000 a year, the numbers of people aged 65 and over will rise by 278,800 a year, according to the thinktank International Longevity Centre – UK.

Is the iPhone or iPad a device for millennials? Ever seen an 18 month old or an 80 year old use one?  iOS and its partnering touch based hardware interfaces has taken away the computing from computing. It has democratised access and understanding for all ages. Banking should focus on that not such an ill defined subset of people.

I will tell you what I reckon millennials want. They want the same things as all human beings. Really bloody good product, service and interface design. Accessible by and built for all. Yes there are behaviours and features that some generations and personality types and backgrounds might desire or partake in more readily but get the main things right please.  I am not saying all segmentation and research is pointless. I am just saying overusing its divisions and taking it at such a simplistic level and then applying it so widely renders it meaningless.

The bottom line is banking is about spending, lending, saving, investing the easier to perform, understand and build upon those things the more financial services will be suitable for the next millennia for each and every lazy market segment definition.

Riepl’s Branch

Death to the branch and all who reside and rely upon them. Now clearly I am a digital by default kind of person but branch bashing is tiresome. Mainly as it is done by those that don’t have that infrastructure so they want to level the playing field. But I believe banks give up infrastructure at their peril. The branch as we know it today might be driven to the brink of extinction by the continued rise of mobile…

But, like Riepls law posits, some forms of media never die…

Reipl’s law actually states (translated)

‘further developed types of media never replace the existing modes of media and their usage patterns. Instead, a convergence takes place in their field, leading to a different way and field of use for these older forms’

Clearly branches will morph and flux due to the continued rise of digital.  Their size and function and form will of course change. In some cases of proposed media death you see a resurgence and a move to the premium. Vinyl being the classic example. TV never killed the radio. Tablets will never kill the TV. Wearables will not kill mobiles. Mobiles may never kill branches…they may seriously wound them though.

This reckon assumes that people love branches the same way the love vinyl…perhaps not but there are still a number of financial services that benefit from human face to face  service.

Yeah but Amazon killed Barnes & Noble, iTunes killed HMV,  Netflix killed Blockbuster etc. but they were all media and the distribution model is what changed, do services differ? Expedia killed the travel agent is the a fairly obvious parallel but travel agents still cling onto the high street. We have seen the rise of the premium and tailored players such as Kuoni. It seems people like getting help from smart people who know their stuff. Solutions tailored to their needs etc. Obvious really.

There are many opportunities to experiment with the branch at all ends of the spectrum. The premium end being the most obvious for an influx of some theatre and grandeur which could lead to a wonderful experience. Then mass market may be trickier to justify on cost alone but can the value of the branch be measured on cost alone? Many have tried before to improve the branch and they will try again. Good luck to them, ignore the naysayers, yes make digital amazing but don’t go throwing away those important pieces of infrastructures just yet.

Screw omnichannel

As wretched buzzwords go omnichannel is right up there with the worst of them. Far too close to omnishambles for my liking. I would much prefer to think only channel (or onlichannel if you want to be a dick about it).  Also why is banking so obsessed with channels?

In banking omnichannel basically means having the capability to do anything from any channel (mobile, branch, telephone) and resume or complete or see notification of that process or event on a different channel whenever and wherever you want. That is of course a good thing but is the focus on providing this type of functionality at the detriment of single channel experience? Are your channels really as good as they can be today without adding yet more complexity?

first direct (disclosure: I work for the company that owns first direct) is currently, and has been for years, 10-15% higher rated from a customer satisfaction point of view than all of its big name competitors. This is mainly down to one channel in my opinion, the telephone. They have pretty much mastered the telephone as a channel for banking. No automated menu, just straight through to a skilled, well trained and friendly person in either Yorkshire or Scotland. That first point of contact have to resolve the issue or at the very least take ownership for its completion. Seems so simple yet evidently the competition thinks it can’t scale or does not stack up financially otherwise they would have copied it years ago.

Do you want all your channels talking to each other before they are fully capable of talking to a customer as well as they could? Can every business model you have complete within a single channel? If not why not? In some countries wet signatures i.e. you have to physically sign a piece of paper with ink, and regulations prevent this but within reason you should be able to complete or get to the point where signing and returning any forms is the very last thing needed to complete the process.

Another thought I had about channels is can you sign up for a single channel? Can I join a bank and say I only want to use tablet or mobile? Or do I need a slew of different identities for telephone, internet banking and for mobile as well? Why?

My parents are in their 60s they have a netbook, and both Android and Apple tablets, yet they are terrified of ‘Internet Banking’. One element being the complexity and fear of someone hacking their PC. I have a feeling that fear would be reduced if they could just use the iPad app. The sign up process however means they have to register for telephone banking and online banking, then setup another password inside that to allow them to use iPad banking. A barrier to entry to high for some.

The other fear is doing something wrong. My colleague Darren had a great idea about providing read only banking. You can see what is going on with your account online or on mobile but you can’t make any changes. You could get family members to authorise access or make the changes for you or use another channel to get a staff member to complete it for you, omnichannel of a different kind.

Can I opt out of specific channels fully? Never send me any post, never, ever call me on the phone. Can your business models function with the loss of one or two channels? Is omnichannel a desire or a functional need that you can’t operate without?

I was reminded of this dusty post stuck in my drafts folder when Phil Gyford published his awful experiences of trying to open a business account in the UK. Go and read it for a funny and frustrating insight into how complex it is to purchase the primary product of banking. What this effectively comes down to is really good service design, customer journey mapping and all that other good UX stuff being of the utmost importance or as Tom Loosemore put it…

The default should be letting the customer complete the process as simply as possible in the channel they started in. While the word omnichannel is a horror the capability it promises is a good thing but please don’t let it be at the expense of making singular channels as good as they could and should be.

Six little fields; Why don’t banks set them free?

I wonder what would happen if every financial service organisation in the world was required to make just six little fields of data available to customers in an automated and open standard automated feed that they could use how and where they see fit. The Six Little Fields, The key day to day transactional data of all the products mentioned above and so many more, are;

  • Time
  • Date
  • Transaction Type (Visa, ATM withdrawal, Direct Debit etc)
  • Transaction Description
  • Transaction Value
  • Balance of the account

There are many more fields underlying this data but these are the key display fields. To allow banking to become a greater part of the web and for this data to become the basis of a thriving ecosystem we need solutions to the following three (at least) problems;

  • An open standard format for transaction data
  • A method of securely linking other financial institutions or 3rd party services to financial institutions so data can be transferred between them automatically
  • A subscribe model for the data that allows new items to be pushed out. Similar to RSS.

I have a handful of ideas and theories on why and how to make this happen and I wanted to share my thinking in the hope that someone out there will agree and have some better ideas along with the will to try to make it happen.


Why do I believe the six little fields are so important?

I assume that most people who own financial services products, be they current accounts, credit cards, loans, savings, insurance etc. do not have them all from the same organisation. Even though I work for a bank, and I should probably whisper this, I do not have all my products with that organisation. This is of course the benefit of a free market, competition and choice, which is a fantastic thing. The big issue from my point of view is what is known in the banking industry as single customer view i.e. the ability to see your full financial picture in one nice shiny interface. This is not a new problem in the industry it is also something I have written about before, but it is one that seems far from being solved or even on any of the banks to do list.

This is one of the ideas I am burdened with and I find myself coming back to it time and again.  I think what I want to see is more web thinking applied to banking. There is a lovely quote from Ben Milne of Dwolla that sums this up nicely.

“Payment networks should have a memory. You absolutely should be able to login to and see every transaction you have ever engaged in with a Visa card. The fact that you can’t do this is ridiculous.”

I love this quote. Those with knowledge of banking will scoff and say this is ridiculous as Visa cards are issued by a multitude of organisations and the identity of the user is not tied back. Fine, but what if…

Not only should you be able to go to financial institutions you have history with but you should also be able to build your own data stores. These six little fields would be the basis of an entire ecosystem featuring so many things that the banks would never build. This tweet from Dave Birch is a great example of those sort of things but if Dave had a feed of his six little fields he could build it himself, solving his own issue, meeting his own need.

Dave wants to follow his bank account

 This data and mechanisms for access could be used just as much, if not more, by the banks themselves. Today most banks have struggled with building on top of or integrating with the digital banking fortresses they have built. It is why the first generation of mobile banking apps plugged into the ATM network rather than Internet Banking because the routes for data out were easier to implement.


How do you get data out of banks today?

The six little fields listed above are the ones shown in your Internet banking interfaces. Underlying those fields there will of course be extra data required such as currency, where money transferred in came from maybe even some location data of an ATM but from a customer’s point of view the six listed above are the ones they most need to see.

Today there are 3 main ways of getting data out of banks.

  1. Manual download of data. This seems to be the prevalent method of getting data out of the banks, certainly in the UK. Download a CSV/OFX/QIF formatted file.
  2. Bespoke feeds. In the US there seems to be a high number of XML feeds in existence to get data out from banks, but they are usually bespoke formats and as such need bespoke decoding. This situation has given rise to 3rd party players such as Yodlee who have put in the hard work to decode all these formats and feeds and then provide a platform to pull them all into. This is laudable but effectively places a commercial company in a very powerful position with regards to data feeds that should be free. Barclays have an automated feed available to their commercial customers in the UK to use with online accountancy service Freeagent.
  3. Scraping the data i.e. giving over your username and password to a 3rd party service and letting their system logon for you and pull the data. Probably against your banks T&Cs and akin to giving your postman your house keys so he can deliver a parcel. Madness. This is known as the password anti-pattern.

The above situation is so fragmented and detrimental to the development of innovative financial services and cannot continue if banking is ever going to get closer to or truly become part of the web.


1.       Open Standards are required

The six little fields must be available in an open standard machine readable format, a format that every financial services organisation, and other interested consumers, could implement.

Open standards would challenge the virtual monopoly Yodlee hold and in my opinion would be better for all. Imagine if shipping containers could only fit onto one organisations fleet of ships, that is effectively the situation we are faced with today.

From an open standard point of view there is actually one in existence today. OFX, Open Financial eXchange. It is a golden oldie, first defined way back in the 90s and was primarily designed for the use of desktop money management packages such as Microsoft Money and Intuit’s Quicken. The standard seems to have gotten a bit stale, I know you should not judge a book by its cover but the OFX website is from a long gone era of web design (and they have not updated their copyright statement since 2007). I emailed the OFX group to see if they were actually still alive and it seems they are;

Yes, OFX is still very much alive.  It dominates the U.S. market; over 5,000 financial institutions in the U.S. use OFX. The last specification was in 2006.  There has not been a need for further revisions although there will probably be revision activity in the future as the need arises.

The problem for me with OFX is that it feels like it is trying to be all things to all men (and women). The scope of the specification covers all manner of banking functions and services, including automated delivery of data but it uses old methods and seems heavily XML based. What I believe is needed is something far simpler and based on more modern data delivery formats and protocols such as OAuth and JSON.


2.       A manual download option is no good

Forcing the user to manually download their data and then upload into another system is a dark ages solution to today’s realtime always on mobile obsessed world. What I would love to see in banking is the introduction of OAuth or one of its variants. This open protocol is designed to allow the sharing of data and identity between web based services. If you have ever connected a 3rd party application to Twitter or Facebook then you have used OAuth. It solves the password anti pattern described above and also removes the need to manually download data.


Twitter OAUTH apps


This is what connected apps look like on Twitter. Imagine if there was a list of banks here instead? Why can’t I connect my data in this exact same way? If I could then Dave Birch could follow his account on Twitter with a few clicks or taps.


3.       Push updates out automatically

Once the connection problem is solved then whenever a new data item i.e. transaction appears that information can be pushed out to wherever the customer has it connected. They are seeing near realtime data in the interfaces of their choosing (obviously how and when the bank posts the transaction data dictates how realtime it is, we know banks love a bit of overnight batch processing).

This source of data becomes a fantastic ingredient for building new things, these events i.e. new transactions, can then have all manner of rules applied to them. It could power IFTTT for banks. Imagine being able to set off other processes automatically as soon as key payments arrive in your account?



If the banking network is truly to become part of the web then the data needs to flow between them as easily and safely as possible. Today that is not really the case in most countries. The digital fortresses banks have built to keep the baddies out are now also keeping their own developers out and are hampering their efforts to build for the brave new digital world. It is in the banks interest to set this data free rather than hoard it for themselves because one day they might understand Big Data. Grasp Open Data first and learn from what people build with that data. I believe Six Little Fields can change the financial services market and how it interacts with and is perceived by the web.

This is part one of my thoughts around six little fields. In the second part I will look at the security concerns of both banks and users, how this might become a reality and whether or not the Germans have actually figured this out already. If you have any questions or comments please do leave them below or pester me on Twitter. I just want to get a conversation started around this topic really, is it a completely ridiculous idea or does it have legs?

The Adjacent Possible In Large Multinational Corporations (Part 3 of 3)

This is the third and final part in a series of posts on the adjacent possible.  I recommend starting with the first and second posts to get more context on the ideas and the adjacent possible


6. The adjacent possible on the inside versus what is available on the outside

As someone whose job it is to look outside the organisation for new and interesting technologies and trends it can be very challenging to try and bring those things back into an organisation that might be a few generational steps behind, like trying to sell Maglev rail tracks to George Stephenson. Sometimes the harsh and frustrating reality is that you need to understand how many steps behind an organisation is, to know where the line of adjacency is.

This in itself can grow to be a major problem. The less an organisation looks outside and studies the evolution of technology over time the greater the technical debt can become and what is adjacent and possible falls further and further behind.

There are also the internal attitudes to innovation in general. Most organisations would say they are innovative and want to be leading fields but inside there might be a more cautious attitude or even admittance that they are a fast follower. Now I hate that term but I realise sometimes it is a good way to be, the first out of the gates is not always the winner but that attitude spreads like a weed and strangles people’s attitude to risk and may prevent them ever trying something new no matter how adjacent to organisational reality it is.

There is also an education and a publishing issue, as outlined in the previous section. Most people do not know what the capabilities of a large organisation are and they also don’t know how an idea goes from their head to getting made.  It seems far from possible for most, me included.


7. Team building exercise

“It was probably one of the greatest research teams ever pulled together on a problem,” Walter Brattain would later say. When he first reviewed the list of who would be working with silicon and germanium in the new solid-state group with Shockley at Murray Hill—roughly every month, the Labs’ staff received typed organizational charts of their department’s personnel—Brattain read it over twice. There isn’t an S.O.B. in the group, he thought to himself, pleased with the prospect of joining in. Then after a minute he had a second thought: Maybe I’m the S.O.B. in the group.  Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Can you increase the chance of discovery, invention and evolution by mixing together different elements? Diverse and cross skilled expert teams should be able to create and unlock greater numbers of ideas faster, although variety is certainly more desirable than speed. It is not as easy to try and force these things but experimenting with different groups of people is certainly worth trying. At the previously mentioned Bell Labs they handpicked teams to work on specific problems and challenges. They had a mix of theorists and experimenters, ideas men and makers working together. Personality types also played a big part as outlined in the quote.

This form of team design maybe considered for short term projects and challenges but not so much on longer term investigations or research. Build an interesting team of people and give them a set of challenges and some freedom to simply ask ‘what if’?


8. Freedom to experiment

“The point of this kind of experimentation was to provide a free environment for “the operation of genius.” His point was that genius would undoubtedly improve the company’s operations just as ordinary engineering could. But genius was not predictable. You had to give it room to assert itself.” Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Conversations will lead to other opportunities, they will progress ideas but only so far. Jumping from words spoken or on a screen to a tangible prototype, product or service for most can be a very difficult leap to make. The large organisation will have ‘siloed’ and gated most processes to prevent people just going off and making new things and rightly so in most cases. The enterprise is a huge machine full of cogs. It has fixed outputs and they must run like clockwork. Slack must be built into the machine though, spaces to converse, build and play outside or adjacent to the main machinery. The closer the play and experimentation can be to the main machine the better for making these experiments as realistic as possible and also increasing the speed with which they can be put in front of customers. Ideally the experiments themselves should be with customers.

Our internal microblogging platform, uBlog, is a small experimental system that has more than proved the concept of this simple way of increasing adjacency. We were lucky enough to find some equipment we could build and host it on. Most people don’t have that luxury let alone the knowledge of what they would need or even how to ask for it. Making it simpler for people to experiment is an imperative.

Part of that simplification is making tools and ingredients available for people to use and build with. The Application Programming Interface is becoming the default means of building digital things quickly in the real world but most organisations do not have a rich set of these just yet. That should be the aim though, exposing services in a smart enough way internally, with a view to moving it externally, can give those with the ability and desire to make a huge increase in adjacency. Those developers who have worked on a single system their whole life may have always harboured a ‘what if we could do that with system X’? A system they had never touched before. APIs allow them to scratch ‘the what if’ itch.

Most large complex organisations will be good at doing large complex things. The processes and checks built up over time will account for these types of projects. Experiments however need to be quick, easy, dirty and cheap. If you wanted to test a new idea or barely working service with a handful of customers how long would it take? Do the processes designed for the large and complex make it impossible to try out the small and simple? These are key things to fix to give people the freedom to experiment.

There is an interesting quote from a talk by Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist and I believe the first person to use the term adjacent possible

“There is a chance that there are general laws. I’ve thought about four of them. […] And the fourth concerns the idea of the adjacent possible. It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.” Stuart Kauffman

And this is what it is all about. Making it so people can explore the adjacent possible as quickly as is possible, keep within the rules to stop them from going too far and too fast but all the while the aim is to find out the what if. Learn from the experiment, publish it widely, discuss it deeply, and move onto the next one. See what is possible tomorrow.



These eight theories over three posts are just the starting point of my ideas on this topic. It is clearly a huge subject and there are many angles I have surely not covered. Hopefully people will be willing to share and publish their own ideas and feedback to help build upon the work I have done.

For me the key to the adjacent possible is networks. Allowing easy connections to be made between people, problems, information, answers, ideas etc., is a must. Simplifying the steps required for a person to ask a question, find an answer/person, propose solutions, make a thing and most importantly do this in public will bring a greater level of adjacent possibility to an organisation.

There are many variables to improving the chances of great ideas getting out of people’s heads and getting closer to reality. There are many more than I have listed above. The two things to solve that will bring the greatest benefit in the shortest time are make it easier for conversations and connections to be made and build things that will give people freedom to experiment.

You can’t necessarily force all these elements together and expect magic. You just need to create a fertile environment and nurture people and see what they create. Feed the curious mind, enable the skilled maker and let the theorists test out those long held theories. These are my ideas on how to encourage the adjacent possible.


I highly recommend the following books which I have quoted throughout

Where Good Ideas Come From by Stephen B. Johnson

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the great age of American innovation by Jon Gertner


And here are a few related articles on the subject.

The adjacent possible in large mutlinational corporations (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part in a series of posts on the adjacent possible. I recommend starting with part one to get more context on my thinking about the adjacent possible as well as the first two ideas on this subject.


3. The culture is the air people, and therefore ideas, breathe

The rules for the use of collaboration tools mentioned above will be endemic to certain types of corporate culture. The surrounding atmosphere that people live and breathe in their office will have the largest impact on any attempts to encourage people to investigate and test the adjacent possible. Some people will wait for permission to be given or even ordered but for real experimentation to flourish it must become just an accepted part of the working day. It does not have to be something fully formed like Google’s mythical 20% time but just an acceptance that people can feed their curiosity and have the freedom to experiment at the boundaries.

Initiatives like 20% time i.e. a day a week to work on whatever you want as long as it benefits the company and is something new or innovative, is of course worthwhile but single initiatives however varied can become a burden over time as they grow into complex processes that are open to a few capable and perseverant folk. Like most things in large complex organisations they also grow large and complex. It is important to try these kinds of processes but they cannot be the sole measure of whether a company is innovative. They do of course contribute to the overall culture of the organisation showing that innovation will be rewarded.

The question I ask is how is easy would it be for two people from different departments to decide to spend a day or two working on something non-standard and then share or publish what they had done to the rest of the organisation. Rigid objectives, budget lines, timesheets all these important resource recording and directing mechanisms are required for the machine to run but they can certainly get in the way of anything outside the norm making the previous scenario feel almost impossible. ‘Sorry mate can’t help you unless you have a budget line I can record my time against’ ‘We can’t show this anyone as <insert stereotypical perceived innovation blocking department here> will kill us’ and conversations of this type make it feel like making anything new and different is almost impossible. People are often so overloaded with work because the resource allocation for an individual developer will probably be 110-120%. Having an environment and atmosphere that provides time and freedom for these ad hoc collaborations and provides a vehicle to share them with the organisation will be as conducive to the overall culture as any best idea competition.


4. Spaces designed for collision and cultivation

And what of the physical spaces we work in? Are they designed for collaboration as well? There are many studies and design articles on the changing workplace and building to ensure peoples paths cross often ensuring potential for cross pollination of ideas. I am currently reading a brilliant book about Bell Labs, the legendary research facilities of AT&T that created all manner of things including the solid state resistor that changed the face of electronics. Their labs were built to ensure people would bump into one another.

“By intention, everyone would be in one another’s way. Members of the technical staff would often have both laboratories and small offices—but these might be in different corridors, therefore making it necessary to walk between the two, and all but assuring a chance encounter or two with a colleague during the commute. By the same token, the long corridor for the wing that would house many of the physics researchers was intentionally made to be seven hundred feet in length. It was so long that to look down it from one end was to see the other end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling its length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions, and ideas would be almost impossible. Then again, that was the point.” Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Other companies have designed offices for these kinds of interactions and collaborations. Steve Jobs made sure Pixar had a huge atrium that every department had to pass through. Zappos also went with a similar approach when they redesigned an existing office building, closing off several previous routes into the office to force people through central areas. In addition they also built in flexible office walls and non-fixed desks, complete with ceiling level cabling so it is easier to unplug, enabling individuals and teams to move and morph into new spaces and configurations. Do offices in great big vertical towers only go to highlight rigid vertical structures and hierarchies that are not designed to mix? Hot desking as a concept is ok but do teams still sit with each other as a matter of course and is moving around the organisation really encouraged?

Another element of office design and usage that I think certainly helps is using the walls. The walls in most offices are either covered in wretched wallpaper, beige paint or the occasional wall decal or worse still motivational posters. These walls could and should be used to display work, to show progress, to highlight problems so that people who are passing can take a look. Well implemented agile development processes will get users to create physical representations of tasks and jobs using pen and paper and some means of fixing them to the wall. Publishing activity, showing progress, making the ‘working out’ visible to those physically near or just passing is a great form of advertising what a team actually does.

In an old post about cultivating hunches I suggested putting whiteboards on the back of toilet doors. It is about thinking more of how we use the spaces we occupy and work in over and above just somewhere to sit in front of a screen and a keyboard.


5. Publish by default – no more secrets

No more secrets, make things public by default, creating a culture of sharing can only increase adjacency; the importance of this sharing cannot be underestimated. Build basic description and communications into plans and working practices of the projects being undertaken around the world. Not just the dry status reports but well written descriptions of the trials and tribulations of a project/product as it ebbs and flows through its natural lifecycle. The publishing and therefore sharing of this information is the key to having a healthy flow of knowledge and potential adjacencies to be investigated by others.

I have stated before that I am a big fan of the UK’s Government Digital Service Team and they have built into their service delivery manual the concept of blogging progress frequently and freely. This recent example talking about the work involved to improve search is an excellent example of sharing, writing and publishing.  Project teams sharing their progress, failures, processes, changes and successes in a pace accessible by all (maybe even outside the organisation) would be a very valuable source of information.

The default setting of most teams in organisations seems to be private. Our team often get asked if we can build other teams their own microblog and we usually say no. Use the same one everyone else does. They invariably decline. There needs to be a move away from this unwillingness to work in public. Without the act of publishing the organisation does not maximise the value of what it already, knows and tries and achieve.


This is the end of part two. The final part is available here.