Thursday, October 17, 2013

P2P Payment Simplicity Square'd

Some of the best mobile banking apps are those that make everyday tasks simpler. Two of my favorites are GoBank's Balance Bar, that lets you see your account balance without login, and Moven's real-time mobile purchase receipts and analysis.

Tuesday, Square, Inc. joined my growing list of ├╝ber-simple mobile banking applications with their introduction of Square Cash, a new app that makes sending money person to person as simple as sending an email. In today's mobile world, simplicity is the 'new black'.

P2P applications are definitely not new. There are literally hundreds of bank and non-bank applications that allow you to send money digitally, including Google, PayPal and Venmo. Consumers also have the choice of simply writing a check as they have done for years. But, I believe Square has introduced the most streamlined app that may have the broadest mass market appeal. 

Imagine emailing money to another person, without a fee, directly from a debit card without a login or password. All that is needed is a debit card number, Zip Code and expiration date from the sender and recipient (only need to be entered the first time you use the service). After that, sending money is only an email address away.

Compare that process to most banks, that require mobile banking sign-in (don't get me started), a test transaction and potentially more steps, even though there is normally no fee for the service. PayPal's P2P app transfers money from a PayPal account to another PayPal account, with transferring funds to a bank account being an additional step (in addition to a one-time signing up for PayPal). Google's P2P service uses email like Square, but requires signing up for Google Wallet and transferring funds to a bank account. Venmo is a growing favorite of younger people who prefer to send money via a Facebook-like newsfeed. This service also requires an application sign-up.

Unlike Square Cash, most of the other P2P applications have fees attached as shown below. Square Cash, however, only supports debit cards at this time, with low weekly limits ($250) unless you provide a mobile phone number and Facebook account or verify your full name, the last four digits of your social security number and date of birth -- then the limit is raised to $2,500. If the Facebook option is selected, no information or messages are ever passed to the social channel. Square is simply using Facebook as part of authentication.

Source: My Bank Tracker, September 2013
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How Square Cash Works

I got introduced to Square Cash first thing yesterday morning with an email from fellow fintech geek, David Gerbino, who sent me $1 via email. To inform me of the 'gift', I received both an email from Dave that told me he was sending me money and an email from Square informing me of the same (shown below).

To transfer the funds into my account, I simply hit the 'deposit funds' link on my computer or cell phone, and enter my debit card number, the expiration date of my card and my Zip code as shown below. That's it (and I only need to do that once). 

Notice how spartan each step of the process is. While there is an animated background with color and theme changes over time, there is zero unneeded information, highlighting that there are no strings attached.

Upon making my deposit, I immediately received an email confirming my deposit was made and letting me know that I can now send money as well. As with the initial communication, my email and all processes are clearly optimized more for mobile than for a desktop.

The Square Cash mobile app (offered in both iOS and Android versions) is very simple, with a built in step-by-step tutorial and an FAQ component. I found the desktop and mobile versions to be equally concise even though it is clear that Square Cash was built as a mobile-first application.
With Square Cash, money is transferred from bank to bank with no funds ever being held in a Square account (like with PayPal). Square says that deposits will be made within 1-2 days, and I found it a bit ironic that it took me longer to log into my mobile banking account to confirm my deposit than it did to perform the entire transaction with Square.

According to Square, there are no plans for ads or fees on the service as it is offered today, yet it does plan to offer premium options (I would assume that a fee could be implemented for faster transfers much like some organizations do for mobile check deposits).

Pros and Cons of Square Cash

I believe the simplicity of Square Cash is the application's strongest benefit. While Square may not be known by everyone, it has a track record in the merchant arena and obviously plans to promote this service heavily. And unlike many of the competitors, if a payment is initiated with Square, the recipient can get their funds with minimal steps and can start using the app themselves immediately.

From early comments on both the Apple and Android app sites, early buzz is overwhelmingly positive. I am sure that since it is free it helps.

That said, there are still some drawbacks to Square Cash:

      • Debit Card Only: While the limitation to only MasterCard and Visa debit cards may be viewed as a negative by some, I believe the limitation is consistent with the streamlined nature of the service. No decisions are needed as to what card or account to link. Simply link a debit card.
      • Use of Email: Many of my Fintech friends debated on the merits of using email as opposed to SMS as the transfer media. Again, I believe this was a conscious decision by Square to appeal to the 'mass' market. While email is not used by Gen Y as much as texting, everyone has an email address and knows how to use it. The email-only decision may be adjusted over time. Again . . . simplicity.

        In addition, new Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) rules limit the ability to market via SMS without opt-in. Square can use email for subsequent marketing messages (such as for their wallet) or to promote the download of the Cash app like below.
      • Limited Options: There is also no way to see a history of your transactions (except by keeping track of your emails) and you can only link one email to one debit card at this time. Again, I believe Square made a conscious decision to keep the application simple as opposed to filling it with a number of options that may be geared to 'power' P2P users.
      • Transfer Limits: The limit on amount that can be sent ($250 a week unless additional personal information is provided and then the limit increases to $2,500) could be a drawback for some, but the service is not meant for large purchases.
      • Fraud Liability: Square makes no guarantees in case of fraud beyond what is available on a person's debit card today. While they will reverse the transaction, that may not be enough.
      • Funds Availability: While many fintech followers pointed to the 1-2 day funds availability stipulation as a negative, this is still faster than checks clear. However, the marketplace is definitely moving to real-time P2P so I expect Square to follow this trend over time (potentially with a 'premium' fee).
      • Clarity: In the mission to remain a very clear app, some clarifications are tough to find. For instance, what if I want to change the debit card I have linked? (A Google developer answered this question online by referring me to As expected, the process was quite easy (even when I forgot my password).

Convenience vs. Security

Getting the balance right between convenience and security is difficult at best and potentially a death blow if miscalculated. Square definitely broadens the reach of its new product by leveraging email as the funds transfer tool. Very straightforward . . . very simple. 

But, with 73 percent of consumers being concerned about their card details being stolen on the internet (according to Datamonitor's 2012 Financial Services Consumer Insight Survey) there is likely to be a concern by potential users that there is a lack of visible payment authentication.

This highlights the paradox of mobile payments that must be overcome. On one hand, consumers find current authentication processes as being overly complicated and time consuming. On the other hand, increased awareness of cybercrime makes consumers concerned about how their security and privacy are being protected.

With Square Cash, they hope they struck the right balance. If they are wrong, and a highly publicized security breach occurs, it is likely to damage Square's goal of becoming a trusted consumer payments brand.

The Epitome of Digital Innovation Today

More than just a very easy way to transfer money, Square Cash represents what mobile innovation means today. Instead of trying to solve all of the world's problems in one app, companies are developing ways to use mobile to make our lives easier . . . from the customer's perspective. 

Square could have followed the lead of many of their payments counterparts and integrated Square Cash into their mobile wallet product. While it may have met corporate product growth objectives, it would have been a worse customer experience with a cluttered user interface. They could have carried forward their $.50 fee from the beta version of the service, at the cost of acceptance.

It is clear that Square Cash is a mobile-first application. Look at all of the 'unused' space on the desktop version of the application. Square Cash is a killer app because they didn't fall into the trap of moving beyond simple elegance. When you use the application for the first time (much like the first time I used my Moven or GoBank account), the first impression is, "Wow, that was really easy".

"There's a tendency to think of innovation as coming up with the latest gadget, or adding new features onto existing applications. But the concept of breakthrough simplicity recognizes that today, the most powerful forms of innovation don't manifiest themselves in new bells and whistles. They take the form of better customer experiences (or patient experiences, citizen experiences, etc.). And one of the best ways to improve any experience is to simplify it -- remove complications, unnecessary layers, hassles or distractions, while focusing in on the essence of what people want and need in a particular situation."
What will be interesting to see is whether other payments players follow Square's lead toward a more simplified application. More importantly, it will be interesting to see if the banking and credit union industries will be able to focus on taking steps out of mobile and online processes for a better user experience.

Square Wins Best of the Web Award

Jim Bruene, publisher of the heavily followed Online Banking Report and Net Banker newsletter has a discerning eye for what is evolution and what represents evolution in digital financial services. As founder of Finovate, he has the opportunity to see banking innovation up close on a regular basis. This week, however, he awarded Square with a 'Best of the Web' award. In doing so, Jim said,
"It's been six months since he handed out an OBR Best of the Web award. Since then, there have been many new enabling technologies and promising applications. But with every passing year, it gets harder to raise the bar with a new digital financial product. Square did it this week. The company took P2P payments -- something PayPal commercialized in 1999, CashEdge/Fiserv bankified in 2009/2010, and Google simplified in May -- and distilled it down to its essence."
He sums it up best when he says, "It's hard to imagine P2P payments being any simpler. And Square is doing it all for free".

Square Cash Twitter Discussions

Additional Resources

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  1. Perfectly positioned.
    Not techie complicated, UI, UX or HX (get the acronym picture??).
    And not too far "out there" for mainstream to use.

    I agree with you, Jim, on email usage - it's a conscious strategy.
    Debit Card linkage is brilliant. Forces people to make decisions and ownership of their personal spend (or link in their credit line directly to their checking account).

    It's that KISS philosophy:
    Keep it simple, stupid. or is it? Keep it stupid simple. Frictionless indeed.

  2. Re: 1-2 day funds availability: I tested three transfers and all happened close to immediately. This is my new favorite way to load my prepaid card (associated with one of my email addresses) from my checking debit card (another of my email addresses) - I just send an email to myself, and viola: free, near-immediate transfer. By contrast, loading via a Wells Fargo bank transfer requires sign-in, takes 3-5 days, and costs me $3. Game changer! I have some questions about security and how they will prevent email spoofing, but I have to think a brand like Square has thought that through pretty carefully - too much at stake not to have...I hope.