Online banking with a smile

Remember Smile, the online bank? If you’re of a certain age you probably will. At one time they were pioneers. But Smile went quiet maybe 10 years ago, apparently dying of neglect. Now a new Smile website has just launched. I’m proud to have been involved in creating it.

I was brought in by brilliant Bristol UX agency cxpartners (they insist on the lack of capitals; I say it’s annoying and dated) to help them create a new tone of voice that prioritised clarity, speed, honesty and a dry sense of humour.

Coping with compliance

If you’ve ever been involved in crafting financial services copy, you’ll know it’s a nightmare. The Compliance department go through everything with an infinitesimally fine tooth comb and weed out anything that sounds too clear and honest, or that’s certainly what it feels like. There’s a serious and good reason for this, given the amount of mis-selling that financial institutions have done in recent decades. You shouldn’t mislead people. But why can’t you talk plainly about things?

One example: ‘Subject to status’. Does anyone know what that means? Does ‘status’ refer to you, or the account, or something else entirely?

It might mean that the success of your application is subject to how good your job is or how well you’re respected in your community. It might refer to the status of the product – how many new applications they’ve had recently, say. Or maybe it means the general state of affairs prevailing in the country at large. Who knows? It’s ridiculously ambiguous.

The real purpose of that ambiguous phrase is to cover the bank for the rare times when someone isn’t allowed to open an account (for example, because they’ve been declared bankrupt).

So we said: OK, let’s communicate that point to people, but let’s do so in a way that they can actually understand. How about ‘Before we can say yes, we’ll need to carry out a credit check and assess your personal circumstances’.

Eventually Compliance came back and said yes, that’s great, as long as you include the phrase ‘subject to status’. But we’d just explained what that phrase meant! They wouldn’t relent. What’s more, they reworded the sentence so it sounded colder and less human. We ended up with ‘Approval is subject to status and based on a credit check and an assessment of your personal circumstances.’

Well, at least people have a slightly better idea of what subject to status means. But the reason we ended up with that unpleasant sentence is hard to fathom.

Honesty and clarity

That’s the downside. The upside was that we were able to create a tone that aimed to be honest and sometimes playful, that attempted to cut through the crap and say things how they were.

Switching accounts, for example, makes people nervous. They worry that they might be without a working bank account for days or weeks. So we said:

Switching accounts. It’s going to be okay.
Yes, switching your current account can be a bit worrying. But listen, we’ll transfer all of your Direct Debits across and even redirect payments into and out of your old account.

Phew. Tell me more >

And on the page where we explained switching, we put in a big headline that said ‘If there are any problems, we guarantee to cover you’. Super clear, no messing around.

Many banks, let’s take Lloyds for example, just have as their headline ‘Current Account Switch Guarantee’. But that doesn’t tell you what the guarantee does, and it doesn’t address you directly.

Defining tone of voice

Of course the copy on the site now is a team effort. Some of my words survive but there are many more put in by others. But I did write the tone of voice guide, and I made sure it was clear, quick, honest and dry.

The site is far from perfect, but it’s clearer, more honest, and more amusing than most bank websites. And that takes a hell of a lot of hard work to achieve.