Starling & The UX Nightmare

I'm been permanently both impressed and frustrated by Starling Bank. On the one hand, their automated services are incredibly smooth, but when they don't work you're left with little recourse.

We decided to start banking with Starling in 2019, mainly because they offered some useful overseas transaction rates and the ability to easily set up a joint account. The initial process was incredibly simple for my partner: she installed the app on her phone, went through the onboarding steps, and within a few hours had an account. Within a couple of days a physical card had arrived and she was good to go. On my end, there were some issues, to put it mildly.

As part of that signup process, I needed to record a short video saying a specific phrase that included a one-time passcode. Like everything Starling does, that video was done via their app, which prompted my camera to turn on, gave me a handy AR face overlay to show where I needed to be in the frame, and let me review the recording before uploading. It was all pretty impressive, but my videos kept on being rejected by their system. Confusingly, I was still able to sign up for an account, request a card, and even received a confirmation email, but any time I tried to log in I was bounced away due to "fraud detection".

I eventually gave up and called their customer service. I'd rather have talked to someone via webchat, but apparently that option is only available via the app and, well, I couldn't get past the onboarding screen 🤷‍♀️ It turned out that my videos were deemed "out of focus" by their systems, which had therefore flagged me as suspicious. They weren't actually out of focus, but my front-facing camera had a condensation issue at the time and so the footage was a little foggy. I also have a slightly older phone with a fairly poor front-facing camera, because I never use that functionality. I don't take selfies with the front camera, I never video call people, so it just isn't important to me.

But there's an easy fix here: my phone has an excellent rear camera. I'll just use that, right? Wrong! 🛑👮‍♀️ Starling won't let me use the rear camera at all. I talk to support about this, even going so far as to point out that some phones don't have a front-facing camera, but they can't help me. The app needs a front-facing camera, nothing else will be allowed. Okay, can I record myself and upload the clip? No, apparently that's also potentially fraudulent. Right, what about verifying who I am a different way? It's not as swish, but I can send them ID and documentation, right? Again, not how their system works...

Their advice is to set up the account on a different device – one which meets their minimum standards for consumer hardware – and then activate my phone later. What devices do I have? Well, I have a desktop PC (it has to be "mobile", so that's out) and an iPad. Great! The iPad will be perfect, just download the app and... Oh wait, it's not in the app store? Back to customer support to discover that my iPad 2 is too old, even though they support iOS 9 (which is what it's running) 🤦‍♂️ There was some bizarre workaround that we ended up trying; I don't remember the details (I think it involved a PWA), but to this day my iPad is registered as a device on my account, so we clearly got that far somehow.

Long story long, I ended up getting personally contacted by the CEO of the company over LinkedIn, who backdoored me into their system. I still don't fully know what changed, but after a brief back'n'forth via email, my account just activated. This whole process took me a couple of weeks and was so incredibly annoying that we lost all impetus to set up the systems we wanted to on the accounts. Then 2020 happened, our travel plans were all cancelled and, as a result, both cards have sat, unused and unwanted, for two years. The app is certainly very nice to use (and has stayed that way, unlike other brands *cough* Revolut *cough* who began with a clean interface and now have a bloated nightmare) and I really like their marketing and branding, but our use-case vanished with the pandemic.

That was, until we moved house. I still don't really need the account, but it remains potentially useful in the future when travel is possible again, so I want to keep it. But I now need to update the address[1]. So, for the first time in likely a year, I fire up the app on my phone. I tap my fingerprint scanner to log in, the security screen vanishes, and a nice white, multitone skeleton layout appears... and never goes away. I crash the app and try again, but get no further than this white faux-screen. Sigh fine I'll do this another day.

A couple of weeks pass and I try again: same issue. I wipe the app's cache on my phone, force stop it, reboot, and try again: nada. I load up Starling's website and try to log in there, but immediately get punted back to the app to verify my login code. The notification comes through in my system tray, but when I click it... white screen 😡 Fine, let's contact customer suppor... oh wait, yes, they're only available via the app[2]!

Another couple of months pass and I'm once again reminded by my credit score tracking service that my address is still stuck in the past, so I reload the app and try again. I uninstall and reinstall it this time[3], but am still hitting the white screen. I try logging in online again, but this time I try verifying the notification with my passcode rather than my fingerprint (because, why not at this point?) and hey! Look at that, I'm in 🎉 I've got access to my account in my browser, this is great. I can enable/disable my card, change a bunch of settings... but I can't change my address. I can see it, I just can't update it. Nor can I contact customer support – that's still app-only 🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️

Still, maybe that passcode workaround will let me get into the app itsel... oh, no, it's still just a white screen. Whatever bizarre magic that worked for the verification modal apparently doesn't apply to the actual UI.

At this point I've spent, cumulatively, several hours just trying to get into my account. My bank account. Luckily, I don't even have any money in this account, so it's not a big issue for me, but if this was my main account? How do companies that provide vital infrastructure like banking think it's okay to have these obvious single points of failure? I imagine if I spoke to someone from Starling they would point out that I could have used a different mobile device, but in the ensuing two years of being a customer they've completely discontinued support for iOS 9, so I'd need to actually go out and buy a new device just for the privilege of accessing my money. That's not okay, sorry. If this was some frivolous social app, then fine, only support the latest, cutting-edge hardware, but it's not. It's a bank account. Something I'll hopefully have for decades and which should therefore work on devices decades old.

Of course, Starling could just provide a fully functional web interface, alongside web-based chat infrastructure. They could even package this up as a handy PWA, allowing quick installation on older devices. Then if my phone gets stolen, I still have a method of accessing my account; my money! Now, I can see an argument for security around the web interface, but not customer support! And, let me remind you: the web interface they already have lets me retrieve all of my personal information, account details, and enable/disable all security settings on my card, so I'm not sure what additional damage a malicious actor could do with the remaining missing features?

Now, at this point I was about to give in and call them, but I thought I'd just try and uninstall the app one more time. Luckily, this time I noticed that the uninstallation process hadn't actually wiped the cache, or done anything more than disable the app, so I properly uninstalled it, reinstalled, and that did, finally, solve my problem. I was able to log in again, although that process had wiped my device from the account's memory, so I had to go back through the whole verification process with a video recording etc. Thankfully, in the intervening year or two, I've fixed my front-facing camera's fogging issue, so this time the onboarding was incredibly fluid, simple, and painless. It's still an accessibility nightmare with heaps of financial privilege loaded on top – one that will lock significant chunks of the population out of using their services – but hey, it did at least work for me this time.

So my account now has the correct address. Hopefully that means my credit score can finally catch up with reality, and I can put this whole saga behind me. Gaining access to the Starling account has reminded me how much I like their UI and overall design, and I was pleased to note how much faster it felt than other banking apps I use. It almost makes me want to give them a proper shot as a daily-driver account. But then I remember the rest of the farcical nature of my interactions with their service, and realise that relying on them for anything other than the most frivolous of reasons is probably not in my best interest. We're back to that whole impressed yet deeply frustrated state again; maybe in another two years I'll try for a third time?

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  • <p>Starling Bank frustrates and impresses me in equal measure. Their technical solutions are magical – when they work – but their service is steeped in a privileged bias that makes them hard to truly recommend.</p>
  • Murray Adcock.
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