If you trace the news in financial services (banking, insurance, etc.), it's hard not to be overly enthusiastic - the terms like 'digital disruption', 'fintech innovation', 'banking 3.0', 'blockchain-powered XYZ', 'transformative services' are flying left and right in everyday announcements. Apparently, very conservative, highly regulated, traditional institutions are now in absolute avant-garde of user-focused, technological revolution, making Internet-era behemoths like Google, Microsoft, Amazon or Facebook pale in comparison.

Or maybe it's utter crap?

Cheap PR? Buzzword bingo? Painting the dead grass green? A modern equivalent of H.C.Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes"? Hmm, what could be the easiest way to verify that?

How about performing a ... time travel? I mean: going back in time 10-15 years and comparing what banks (or other financial institutions) provided THEN with what they do provide NOW. Because that's what really matters - making a difference from the customer's perspective by providing better customer experience, more valuable products and services, etc. Updating the visual style to look like material design ain't enough.

Time travel sounds like something beyond our capacity these days, but ... luckily I think can help here. In this particular case, I can really make it happen! How come?

Stay awhile and listen ...

Once upon a time

In 2001 I've opened a bank account in a completely new bank which was (AFAIK - I'm not 100% sure here) the 1st true Internet bank (no physical branches, just the Internet access - you could do everything on-line, even opening the account) in Poland. It was named Inteligo, and you can read more about it here. To be honest: those days it was a real game-changer (when compared to traditional banking with money transfers that required you to appear physically in the bank's branch or postal office ...).

But the very next year (in 2002) Inteligo was fully (100%) acquired by the largest bank in Poland - PKO BP. That institution was (and is) perceived as a very traditional one - aimed at retirees, elderly people - in general folks who are somewhat distrustful and reluctant to change. What a marriage, wasn't it?

Fast forward 18 years:

  • PKO BP didn't really "merge" with Inteligo at all - it's still a separate service (with a separate brand, pool of financial products, UI, etc.)
  • the development of Inteligo, which was unquestioningly one of the most innovative banks of its era, has ... pretty much ceased (except few meaningless details I'll cover later) - probably its owner didn't want to invest there and focused on its core e-banking offer (named 'iPKO') instead; feel free to check the "evolution" of the infosite frontpage in web archive.
  • the development of iPKO has progressed steadily (backed up with shitloads of investment) throughout all the past years, bringing the new versions of the web user interface, mobile apps, etc.
  • nevertheless, I didn't terminate my Inteligo account - I still use it mainly to pay the monthly bills, like a small "sash" just for that purpose
Oh, those gradients, so 90-tish :)

You've probably figured it out already, but I'll state it explicitly - that situation provides me a unique opportunity to compare a banking experience straight from 2002 with the one of the 2020 industry leader (here in Poland). And answer the following questions:

  1. how much did the banks really progress in the past 18 years?
  2. what is easier/better/more convenient from the end-user's perspective?
  3. ... or maybe some things have actually worsened?
  4. did the changes introduced by banks change my behaviors when it comes to finances?

I can't wait to dive into the details, so let's not delay any longer!

My banking-fu

Let's expand the context on how I do banking, just a bit. My financial behavioral profile looks like that:

  • I have both private and company (as an individual entrepreneur) accounts - in a few currencies (usual suspects like EUR or USD, none of the exotics)
  • I use both debit and credit cards
  • I have used both cash loans and the mortgage in the past
  • I've bought car insurance via the bank's partnership once
  • I don't use direct debit, its paperwork is freaking cumbersome - I prefer to set subscription-based, regular payments out of the bank
  • obviously, I do money transfers, domestic and international
  • I've used a few forms of savings, but no investments like stocks or derivatives
  • No installment purchases
  • I've requested few atypical operations in the past: like early repayments or rebinding mortgage to a different current account - but nothing really fancy

I don't think I'd call myself a heavy financial instruments user, but probably I'm still above the average. On top of that, I'm a tech-savvy, heavyweight Internet user - I avoid both physical branch visits and call-centers (both phone and video-call versions) at all cost.

When it comes to banking, I generally prefer browser over mobile apps (exception: Revolut, because they have really good, laser-focused mobile apps). The reason is simple: when I'm browsing my savings or making a transfer, I'd like to have some privacy. In my case, privacy usually means having one of my laptops within a hand reach anyway, so ...

The 2nd part of this post has been published here.