The search function itself is not much more useful than that of the InfoCenter.

The Bank of American’s lack of interest in making the search function central to their online banking strategy is apparent from the start. The search box appears in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, with the phrase “Enter Keyword” embedded in it, rather than any text that clearly defines its function. It is merely a percentage of the size of the search window in the InfoCenter (placed squarely in the middle of the screen, and is endorsed by such phrases as “Want to be all-knowing?”).

The BoA search box is also much smaller than many of the competing graphics and text on any given page—its point size must be 6 or even lower. Clearly, the website designers did not want this search box noticed.

The information that can be retrieved from this search box is significantly more detailed than that of the InfoCenter. However, it doesn’t promote any sort of synthetic understanding of the website—that is, it doesn’t point out the interrelation of screens, or of data as it is presented in the site. For example, as noted elsewhere in this report, information from the Accounts Detail screen and that from the inappropriately named Available Balance History screen are not shown to have any relationship to each other.

Here is the complete text that appears with a search of “Available Balance History”:

What does the Available Balance History screen show?

The Available Balance History screen represents a historical view of pending and posted transactions, as recorded during nightly processing (Monday through Friday, except holidays). You can trace how and why your balance changed over time, and when a change may have triggered a fee.

Four days’ worth of transactions are shown at a time, with a total of 93 [endnote 13] days of transaction history available.

On the Available Balance History screen, you may find the following historical transaction types:

AUTH-Authorizations represent check card transactions that were Pending and reduced your balance

HOLD-These transactions represent holds that were placed on your account and reduced your balance. These are typically holds on deposits.

Credit-Transactions that increased your balance.

Pending Credit-Credits that were made to your account after the bank cut-off time and increased your balance. The amounts usually post to your account on the following business day.

Debit-Transactions that decreased your balance.

Returned Debit-These are items, such as checks, that were not paid due to insufficient funds in your account.

To access the Available Balance History screen, select the “Available balance history” link in the Balance Summary section of the Account Details screen. Note: Available balance history is not available for Money Manager or Master Relationship Accounts.

Nowhere in these short paragraphs is the relationship of this screen to any of the others noted, nor is the particular function of this screen in determining your present balance outlined.

Consequently, though it does mention that holds will show up on this screen, it doesn’t mention that active holds—which themselves can trigger overdraft fees—will not appear on the Accounts Activity screen. It states that you may—I’m not sure why the verb “may” and not “will” is used here—find “historical transaction types.” This screen is far from a “history”—it is another part of the divided reflection of your banking status at the present.

Holds are dangerous. Here is the description of a hold in “5 Sneaky Overdraft Traps” (appended to this document):

Swipe your card at the gas pump and the merchant enacts a temporary hold for, say, $75 worth of gas, before the actual transaction begins. (Hotels and car rental agencies use similar procedures.) That hold lingers on your account for a day or more, even if the purchase turns out to be much less, warns Fox. Meanwhile, banks consider that hold money unavailable, thus lowering your available balance.

With the ability of a hold to trigger cascading penalties, shouldn’t this appear in the Available Balance along with debit purchases?

The documents themselves that are served up by this search box are poorly formatted. For example, text careens across the screen rather than being contained in a table, which would reduce the length of a line of text for easy reading [endnote 14]. Formatting is reduced to regular type, bold type, occasional blue type, and standard underlined blue type for inner-page hyperlinks. This is in stark contrast to the information presented in the InfoCenter. Where did the small army of graphic designers go when it came to creating pages for this useful information?

Likewise, the style of the writing is matter-of-fact, rather than rendered accessible, even attractive, in the InfoCenter. Free reign is given to arcane banking terms with no help given in providing these terms with definitions (via hyperlinks, or forums), for instance, which has become the standard on such websites as Wikipedia.

This lack of formatting and the lack of style or glosses in the language discourages reading and comprehension. Even when the explanations contain some detail, they are not accompanied with illustrations or other multimedia material that might assist the user in comprehension. The division of the information into small chunks of largely disorganized writing does not promote the synthesis of an understanding of this information.

This post is a section of Bank of America Online Banking: A Critical Evaluation. This essay is also available as a book which can be downloaded for free at Lulu (where an inexpensive, not-priced-for-profit print edition can also be purchased) and at Scribd. The table of contents for the blog version of this essay can be seen in its entirety here.