Why Fifth Third’s Online Banking Application Sucks

Saturday, 30 June 2012

I used to love doing my online banking through Fifth Third. Their old system allowed me to make prompt payments that were immediately reflected on my balance, so I always knew exactly how much money was at my disposal at any given time. Their newish system threw all of that out of the window. I’ve never been one to have overdrafts, but since they went through what I’m sure they consider an upgrade, I end up with one just about every other month. Here’s an example of how the new system works:

Let’s start with $500 in the account. You get your cable bill for $100, and log on to make the payment. Fifth Third’s system schedules the payment to be made 2 – 3 days after you enter it. Your account still shows a balance of $500. The day before the payment is to be made, you decide to cancel the payment and go in to do so. Besides being ridiculously hard to find out how to cancel the payment, when you finally get there, you’re unable to because apparently the system is already processing the transaction. The payment does NOT show up on the itemized pending transactions screen, but IS reflected in the total pending payments line. Your balance still shows as $500. The next day, the day of the payment, the cable payment completely disappears from your pending transactions list, and is listed as PAID in the payment activity screen. Your balance remains at $500. The day AFTER the payment is made, your balance is updated to $400. Fairly complicated to follow along, but not impossible, if you only pay one bill at a time.

Let’s say I have $500 in the account. I get my cable bill and schedule the payment. The next day I get my phone bill and schedule the payment. The day after I get my electric and gas bills, and schedule those payments. Now can you keep track of what’s pending and what your balance is for the staggered 2 – 3 day cycle it takes to pay each bill? Maybe if you’re a COBOL mainframe.

I know NO ONE who actually thinks about their money in a staggered 2 – 3 day payment cycle. If I write a check for $100 and give it to a cashier, and they take 2 – 3 days to cash it, I don’t think that I’m still in possession of that $100. As soon as I hand it over, it is money I no longer have. The Fifth Third user interface should reflect this human paradigm, not the way the computer processes transactions.

There’s an easy way to fix this, and it’s even a compromise between the two paradigms. It appears that Fifth Third has tried to make it work, but they’re failing there as well. Show the math. The official balance, minus the pending transactions equals the available balance. Unfortunately, the several different pending transactions screens NEVER agree with each other in regard to the math, and don’t give enough detail for a human to make sense of what’s going on.

On the Account Activity page you get a little box that gives your balance as of yesterday’s date; a line for total pending transactions, a line for other transactions and a line that shows available balance. You cannot click on the pending or other transactions lines to see where they are getting those numbers. If you click on the Pending or Other links to get an explanation, a 404 window pops up.

There is also a pending payments screen on the Make Payments page. This page takes your available balance from the first page (the one that you get from subtracting pending payments) and subtracts pending payments from it. It’s always in red for me. The math doesn’t remotely reflect the other pending payment screen.

And don’t get me started on the fact that my mortgage payments (also through Fifth Third) don’t even appear as pending transactions, the money just disappears and shows up on the itemized list of posted transactions. I have to have a reminder on my Google Calendar so I know when that money is going to be taken out. If you bank with Fifth Third and have your mortgage through them, you should be able to set up that payment through their online system instead of the third party they use.

And that’s just me bitching about the math. The user experience is Byzantine. There are frames within frames within frames, each with their own scroll bar, some are vertical scroll bars, some are horizontal scroll bars. There are flyouts within flyouts that make me click 3 more times than I should have in order to pay a bill, or schedule a payment. A payment that can no longer be canceled does not give a prompt explaining why it can’t be canceled, the option just isn’t there. I don’t need to be able to assign a car icon to my car payment, I need to be able to see how much money I have.

The most important thing I’ve learned from working on government websites is that citizens do not give a shit about how pretty or bell&whistly a site is. They want the information they’ve come to get, they want to pay their property taxes with as little fuss as possible, and they want everything to be clear and concise, so they can go back to watching YouTube ASAP. This same expectation applies to banking. Show me my money and what is being done with it.

This is what I’d like to see at a glance:

What a Balance Summary Should Look Like
Category Details Amount
Current Balance (629) $500
Pending Payments Cable (processing) (630) -$100
Phone (cancel this payment) (72) -$75
Student Loan (cancel this payment) (manage recurrence)(7 – 2) -$80
ATM Withdrawal (630) -$320
Balance After Payments (73) -$75

Oh, hey, look. I can see that I’m going to be in the red if I don’t cancel my phone bill payment. I see that I can’t cancel the cable bill because it’s already being processed. I see the dates that each bill will be paid. I see that the balance after payments is effective through 7 – 3 and I can plan which bills to pay and which to hold until next payday because I can tell:

  • How much money I have
  • How much of that has already been assigned
  • How much is left after

The list of all transactions can be on another page, the manage payees section can be on another page, everything can be on other pages. I want something that looks like my checkbook. I might go back to using my checkbook. Buying stamps is cheaper than paying overdraft fees. Unfortunately there’s no way to get past the wall of basic customer-​service folks to speak to someone who might have the power to affect how their banking works, so I’m reduced to writing a bitching weblog post.

The old system was simpler, and simpler is better when dealing with your money day to day. I shouldn’t need to be a CPA to understand what my bank is doing with my money.