“I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life…”
—Frank O’Hara, “The Day Lady Died” (1959)

It’s no secret that the Bank of America, like all major banks in the United States, relies on income from overdraft fees for the maintenance of their business, and perhaps their growth. Some revenue and profit figures appear later in this report, but this material is available on the internet [endnote 1].

My concern is with a detailed analysis of the Bank of America’s online banking center and how, despite the great amount of money they put into it—it is commonly rated very high among bank websites, despite the flaws in these general evaluations—the concern with BoA is with furthering advertising their product (or products, including items for sale) than for creating a streamlined, accurate experience for their users.

My belief is that the BoA is aware of the amount of “fluff” that is on their site, not to mention the very contradictions inherent in its construction—that is to say, useful information about using the site is buried within it, while the less useful fluff is put forward.

My theses are the following:

A. The information on the website is presented as a continued form of advertisement, not in the spirit of instruction. Warnings about possible mistakes are not highlighted, as would be in any commercial software package.

Graphics are distracting, and page layout is used to emphasize the “positive”—how easy and attractive each feature is—rather than the “negative”—where you can make mistakes and the repercussions which, in this case, unlike in Adobe Photoshop or Facebook (or even free, very simple software programs on the web), can be detrimental to your bank balance. As an additional contrast, medical items such as insulin pumps—I use one—always emphasize the possible dangers of misusing the software.

B. The information presented on the website is incomplete where it could easily be complete, given the availability of this information on other websites (I’m using the Wells Fargo website, as well as social networking sites—the types of sites that set the standard for most young people today—as comparisons). Examples of the incompleteness of this information include:

     1) only providing records of transactions for the past 6 months (or, on the “Available Balance History” page, 3 months), which, of course, is not enough information to permit review of previous overdraft charges to contest a history by the bank of abuses, or to cite precedents for seemingly reasonable behavior by a customer in regards to handling of funds

     2) not providing information on checks that have been paid through Bill Pay on the site that have not yet been presented to the bank,

     3) spreading information about debit card purchases over several screens, reserving information about PIN purchases to the main accounts page and reserving information about signed debit purchases to the Accounts History page (misleadingly titled as the information presented on that page is often more current than that on the Accounts Information page), and, finally,

     4) as a corollary to thesis A, there are no complete tutorials or user’s manuals available on the website, despite the preponderance of attractive multimedia materials, 24 hour chat help lines [endnote 2], and other items that suggest an awareness of the complexity of the site and the budget to address this complexity.

C. The emphasis on style and ease on the website often operates against easy usage. This argument is a bit more esoteric, but relies partly on the arguments of information visualization specialist Edward Tufte, whose short book, The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint [endnote 3], goes so far as to state the poor presentation of information in evaluative meetings led to the disaster of the Challenger space shuttle explosion. He writes on his website:

In corporate and government bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides projected up on the wall. For many years, overhead projectors lit up transparencies, and slide projectors showed high-resolution 35mm slides. Now “slideware” computer programs for presentations are nearly everywhere. Early in the 21st century, several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint were turning out trillions of slides each year.

Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations? (The boldface are mine.)

Of course, he is arguing against Powerpoint in this case (other books of his offer more detailed assessments of the presentation of information), and the Bank of America website presents more information than a Powerpoint slide (though not, tellingly, much significant information about how to use or traverse it).

However, the argument is the same: the Bank of America’s online services discourage the kind of synthetic reasoning that makes for an effective management of funds. The “cognitive style” of the Bank of America’s website discourages any sort of deep, specific and wary engagement with its data, assuring you that it is all ok. In contrast, the Wells Fargo site offers several ways to accurately synthesize one’s banking information and is no frills in terms of how it presents information—it asks you to be serious about your money.

These theses are scattered around the following arguments and analyses concerning specific aspects of the website and its relationship to virtual transactions.

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.