What’s better—a mobile app or a mobile-optimized website?

While 79% of mobile users surveyed by Boston-based research firm Dalbar responded that they prefer the app over the site, a wave of app-like practices on mobile sites are beginning to blur that distinction.

Users prefer apps because they appear more accessible than sites — there’s no need to type in the URL each time, for example — but financial firms are now leading the way in “appifying” their mobile sites.

To cite one example, mobile app users like to “favorite” content within an app, allowing them to quickly return to that content on their next visit. Franklin Templeton now provides that functionality, allowing users to select their favorite mutual funds, which will appear on the site’s homepage on the user’s future visits. Just 9% of financial services firms have that capability presently, according to Dalbar.

The firm has expanded its annual survey, this year rating 46 financial services company mobile sites, one more than the previous year, according to 11 distinct evaluation categories (up from nine the previous year). The criteria include design, security, mobile optimization, ease of use, personalization, support, interaction with the firm, interactivity, navigation, core content and behavior centric.

Of the 46, we include the 10 with the highest raw scores, though they fall unevenly across Dalbar’s three audience categories of mutual funds, insurance and annuity, and retirement sites. Of the 10, four are mutual fund sites, just two are insurance sites and four are retirement providers.

“What makes these 10 mobile sites paragons of excellence is their understanding that, above all else, they must establish a meaningful presence on their customers’ devices,” Dalbar’s managing director Kathleen Whalen tells ThinkAdvisor. “They are able to achieve this by using innovative strategies when providing financial content for mobile consumption.”

Here are 10 mobile site innovators in the financial services space:

Vanguard mobile site

No. 10 (No. 4 among mutual fund sites)

Vanguard

Score: 66.35

The indexing giant was a top performer in two areas — security, a crucial requirement of any financial website where consumers must be made to feel confident that their data is protected — and “behavior centric,” which rates features that support a user’s choice to conduct his affairs online. For example, the ability to verify or cancel requests prior to a transaction is a behavior-centric quality.

Vanguard received a top score in this evaluation area due to its consistent offering of aid,” the Dalbar report states. “Fund information can be both filtered and sorted for more simplified viewing. Once a fund is chosen, links are provided to helpful information such as ‘How the potential for risk affects your investment.’ Finally, when completing transactions there is the option to both verify and cancel the transaction before it is submitted.”

Federated Funds

No. 9 (No. 3 among mutual fund sites)

Federated Funds

Score: 67.19

The mutual fund company’s site stands in two areas in particular: mobile optimization and ease of use. The former category involves appropriately formatted pages, incremental data loading and the like, whereas the latter category features adequately sized buttons, recognizable site control options and the like.

So while two firms are praised for offering fixed navigational bars enabling users to scroll vertically on the page while offering quick menu access, Dalbar writes that “Federated Funds…goes a step further by not only providing the static bar at the top of the page, but tapping the menu button within that bar reveals the slide-out navigation from the left side of the screen. Once this area has been opened, users may continue to scroll vertically, yet the menu remains static on the left side of the screen.”

In other words, you explore all you want on one side of the screen while not losing sight of the site’s broad menu optinons.

TIAA-CREF

No. 8 (No. 4 among retirement provider sites)

TIAA-CREF

Score: 67.57

The nonprofit teacher’s retirement behemoth achieved high scores in five areas: design, security, personalization/customization, interaction with the firm and interactivity.

Dalbar praised the firm’s mobile site customization thusly:

“TIAA-CREF’s responsive site personalizes the user experience by offering several notable features such as the ability to create a custom performance watch list as well as remember the user’s credentials for future logins. The site also offers a welcome message that is specific to the account holder.”

Dalbar also comments on the firm’s recent redesign of its mobile site, which among other things improved customers’ ability to interact with the firm, by presenting links to its social media pages as well as an enhanced fund performance information page.

Milliman

No. 7 (No. 3 among retirement provider sites)

Milliman

Score: 68.26

The defined contribution firm stood out in both security and navigation. A top score in that latter area means unobtrusive menus, ease in getting back to the home page, location clarity, balanced use of controls and logical placement of site elements.

As Dalbar sums the matter, “providing users with a clear indication of where they are relative to the entirety of a site can be challenging due to the limited screen space available on smartphones.”

Milliman is one firm that has surmounted that challenge.

Great-West Financial

No. 6 (No. 2 among retirement provider sites)

Great West Financial

Score: 68.69

The defined contribution retirement plan company stood out in design, security and support.

Support entails the presence of resources that aid the use of the website such as highlighting site functions and features or “proactive” search tools that bring simultaneous discovery as the search is being concerned.

For those seeking greater social interactivity, the firm recently installed a link to its official Facebook page in the footer of its mobile optimized site.

Putnam Investments

No. 5 (No. 2 among mutual fund sites)

Putnam Investments

Score: 71.89

The Boston-based mutual fund giant stood out in two categories — interaction with the firm and behavior centric.

That former category encompasses the nuts and bolts of reaching out to the firm through email, phone, alerts or social media channels.

As Dalbar stresses, “one of the rudimentary purposes of mobile technology is simple two-way communication. Contact details and communication methods should always be features of a firm’s mobile website,” and Putnam makes it easy for investors to keep in touch.

MetLife

No. 4 (No. 2 among insurance and annuity sites)

MetLife

Score: 74.18

MetLife pays, the company’s motto has it. It likely pays for extensive website consulting because the firm stood out in so many categories: design, security, mobile optimization, ease of use, personalization/customization and interactivity.

In the interactivity category, “Metlife’s interactivity shines with each tap,” writes Dalbar in praise. “Buttons are designed with a gradient effect as though the user is seeing the light reflect off the top. When tapped, the gradient effect disappears; indicating that the button has been pressed and offering reassurance that the site has reacted to the user’s touch. With expanding and collapsing content regions and pinch-to-zoom within the Find an Office area, this mobile site earned a top score in Interactivity.”

USAA

No. 3 (No. 1 among insurance and annuity sites)

USAA

Score: 85.32

The military-oriented insurer scored highly in design, mobile optimization, interaction with the firm and behavior centric.

In interaction with the firm, USAA achieved the maximum score, says Dalbar, as a result of its extensive display of options for reaching out.

“Not only are phone numbers, fax numbers and mailing addresses offered, the account holder’s unique USAA number is listed at the top of the screen and users are informed that they will need to provide this when contacting the firm. Members may also choose to request a call from the firm and USAA asks them to specify the phone number on which they would like to be called. The interactive features do not stop there as users can retrieve messages and e-delivery items, manage alerts and link to the provider’s social media channels, all from their mobile device,” Dalbar writes.

American Century

No. 2 (No. 1 among mutual fund sites)

American Century

Score: 86.57

The Midwest-based mutual fund company is a category killer, with top scores in design, security, mobile optimization, ease of use, personalization/customization, support, navigation and behavior centric.

Since not every mobile user is a pro, site support is essential, and that’s where American Century comes in for special praise:

“American Century was one of only two mobile sites to receive a maximum score in Support. A ‘Mobile Website Features’ area on the home page sets the expectation as to the site’s capabilities in an easy-to-read and well-organized list. Also provided is a proactive search tool for locating specific funds by keyword. Finding all of the Equity or Growth funds is simple as the fund list adjusts to show all of the results based on the user’s input.”

Nationwide Retirement Solutions

No. 1 (No. 1 among retirement provider sites)

Nationwide Retirement Solutions

Score: 90.15

Another category killer with top scores in design, security, ease of use, interactivity,  navigation and behavior centric, the defined contribution service provider took the highest score of the 46 financial firms rated because it seems to have succeeded in appifying, that is making its mobile site as “sexy” as its apps.

Writes Dalbar:

“Native apps generally tend to look prettier than mobile sites. However, this is increasingly becoming less of a distinction. With more powerful devices entering the market on a seemingly daily basis, mobile device browsers are now capable of rendering more complex visual elements than ever before. From animations to transparency levels, iconography and gesture-controlled banners, native apps are no longer the only sexy one on the mobile block.”

The consulting firm cites Nationwide Retirement’s interactive banner, specifically:

Nationwide Retirement Solutions’ mobile site opted to allow users to simply swipe left or right on a banner in order to transition to the next slide in the series, as opposed to incorporating directional arrows that require a definitive tap.”

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