May 15, 2012

As sales of iPads leap off the shelves and Kindle Fires gain traction as an Android-based tablet alternative, pundits have seized upon tablets as the future of computing. Whether this is hype or the new reality, in retail financial services, this means that brokerage firms serving investors and financial advisors on-the-go will need to create apps suited for the iPads and Android tablet devices.

Since the iPad was launched two years ago, many financial services firms have released tablet-formatted apps that take advantage of the iPad’s larger screen size and computing power, notes research firm Corporate Insight in a recent report focused on iPad & Tablet Apps.

Twelve of the 20 firms tracked by the research firm (in what it calls its Mobile Monitor coverage group) offer an account management experience specifically designed for the iPad. Breaking this down further, six bank and credit card firms and seven investment firms out of the 20 companies now offer iPad apps. A smaller number — only two firms — American Express and Bank of America —provide apps for a variety of Android-powered tablets.

But how many of these tablet apps— mainly developed for the iPad since it’s the most popular tablet so far — are unique to the tablet?

“One of the keys to demonstrating true leadership in the tablet space (and scoring well in our grading) is to offer a tablet app that improves upon what is already available on a smartphone,” wrote Corporate Insight in its report published in May. In other words, some financial services firms are recycling the same app they provide on the smartphone without transforming it to capitalize on the tablet’s features. Corporate Insight suggests that some firms have struggled to adapt new features available on their smartphones for the tablet, which the firm calls, “ a significant drawback.”

In the brokerage space, the report singles out Charles Schwab and Fidelity for providing new account visualizations, while noting that Fidelity and Merrill Edge enhance charting capabilities for the tablet’s larger display space. Fidelity receives kudos for providing a strong global market overview for the tablet app, as well as new account charts and tables, full-screen charts with expanded upper and lower indicators from its smartphone apps, and strong transaction capabilities equal to other apps— transfers, bill pay, check deposit.

While brokerage firms were by and large the first firms to offer iPad apps, eyeing the advantages to display market data and advanced charts, they have not yet embraced Androids, though.

The increased real-estate space enables tablet designers to be more creative about how to display account or market data. As an example, Charles Schwab’s iPad app displays position performance on one chart, with a helpful key to explain its meaning, the report notes. Enhanced account visualization is something that gives customers a reason to download a firm’s tablet app, asserts Corporate Insight.

Interestingly, some investment firms are rolling out their investor magazines on the tablet, in some cases, before they have an account management offering. Three investment firms — Charles Schwab, T. Rowe Price and TD Ameritrade — offer versions of client publications via iPad app. Charles Schwab offered its Online Investing magazine via the app store before it had a main app and T.Rowe Price has the magazine app as their only presence on the ipad currently.

Here is some advice for designing a new or improved tablet experience from Corporate Insight:

—Firms from all industry segments (banking, credit card, brokerage/investment) should be developing iPad apps. Firms that leave their clients to use their standard website or the iPhone version of their app risk appearing out of of touch with modern technology, it warns.

—Financial firms should not ignore other tablets. While few firms offer apps for the Kindle Fire or other Android-based tablets, consumers are waking up to these alternatives to the iPad, especially since the Kindle Fire’s price point is attractive. Financial firms should expect demand for Android-tablets to grow in the next few years and plan accordingly.

—Consider a modular design. Using the larger screen size of a tablet screen allows firms to combine what would be several screens on a smartphone into one display. E*Trade and Merrill Lynch provide related account information and research data on a single screen, for example.

—Don’t overcrowd screens. When designing apps for the iPad and other tablets, firms should not crowd every inch of screen space as if it were a smartphone. Strike a balance between providing more content than on a small screen and keeping a clear, spacious, readable design.

—Use fly-outs and pop-ups for elements that don’t need to be enlarged. This can be effective for features such as quotes, trade tickets or transfer interfaces.

—Tablet apps require new, more thorough help features. Though tablets are popular, many users are still unfamiliar with their controls and capabilities. Firms should provide FAQs, and include guides that explain touch screen controls such as tapping, swiping, holding — and call out key features. Since firms are devoting resources to develop tablet apps, they should make sure people understand them.

—Consider other content that can be adapted for tablets. Reach clients with relevant editorial content, such as their investor magazines formatted for the iPad. This can be a smart way to interact with clients if the firm doesn’t yet have a full iPad app.

Ivy is Editor-at-Large for Advanced Trading and Wall Street & Technology. Ivy is responsible for writing in-depth feature articles, daily blogs and news articles with a focus on automated trading in ...