A 2021 guide to fintech development and banking trends
As someone who works in the world of technology and financial services, the term “fintech” is difficult to avoid.
Fintech is short for finance and technology, and it’s a broad category of technologies and practices applied to financial business. It’s not a new term. We can see examples of modern technologies used in the financial world back in the 20th century: ATMs in the ’60s, debit cards in the ’70s, and online banking in the late ’90s. While the 21st century also gave us a boom in mobile banking, that’s not the only innovation technology has brought into the financial world in recent years.
While some may (rightfully) dismiss fintech as merely a buzzword that’s run its course, the biggest transformation in financial services and technology is yet to come.
Below, I’ll outline where fintech stands today and where it will expand in 2021 and beyond.
The growth of fintech development and future expectations
The fintech sector has seen an explosion in investment activity in recent years. For example, 2018 saw $128 billion invested globally into fintech, and this is expected to grow to $310 billion by 2022. While COVID-19 put on pause many new deals and acquisitions in the sector in 2020, the industry continued to grow and most established fintech companies saw substantial growth in 2020. For example, the actively managed exchange-traded fund (ETF) of now-famous Cathie Wood that tracks fintech innovation (ARKF) saw around 100 percent growth in 2020, despite the economic hardship caused by the pandemic.
In fact, the global pandemic might have served to speed up the adoption of digital technologies. Closures and reduced hours of brick-and-mortar bank branches prompted many customers to finally download their bank’s mobile app. The adoption of fintech and digital services soared among all demographics last year. Growing interest from both customers and investors on the stock market indicates trust and high expectations from the fintech industry.
The role of fintech today
Today, fintech is a broad term that includes many innovations, and most are driven by the software technologies behind them. Let’s split these fintech trends into multiple categories and take a closer look at them.
Banking applications on our mobile devices are nothing new, but even today, not everyone is ready to use them. While younger generations are not intimidated by modern technology, older generations might be more cautious. Also, because the hardware needed to use these apps can be expensive, there’s an economic barrier to entry that needs to be considered. But as mentioned before, the pandemic has pushed more people across all demographics towards getting more familiar with financial apps on their phones.
Other aspects that are crucial for the adoption of mobile apps are usability and customer experience. No one wants to navigate sophisticated and convoluted menus or fill out lengthy forms to perform day-to-day transactions and financial operations. There is no doubt that UI/UX is more important than ever for any customer-facing business in a competitive marketplace. If you don’t prioritize user experience, your competitor or a disrupter eventually will.
Another trend in mobile technologies is contactless payment options. Customers are embracing smartphone and smartwatch digital payments across the world, and we can confidently say that contactless mobile payments are going mainstream.
Considering a growing number of transactions, financial industry players are worried about how their technology stack and mobile networks will handle. Upcoming 5G technology should ensure that mobile networks can handle higher quantities of transactions. For IT teams, it means that scalability and resilience will be more important than ever, making quality assurance and testing strategy a crucial consideration for any product leader. Cloud technologies and distributed systems might already be popular in the IT world, but it seems that the trend will continue and perhaps speed up in the future.
Customers demand safety when dealing with their finances, and there are few things more secure than biometric authentication. Apple included fingerprint authentication into iPhones in 2013, and since then, we’ve been able to use our fingerprints to authorize all kinds of transactions in app stores and banking apps. Most modern smartphones include a fingerprint reader and expose an API for software developers to include biometric authentication/authorization in their apps.
But the fingerprint is not the only biometric on the market. We’ve already seen a shift towards the use and incorporation of other biometrics, such as iris patterns, retina patterns, facial features, voice patterns, and even DNA biometrics. Biometric authentication can be contactless, and it has an advantage that has become more than obvious during the pandemic: No need to touch any machine sensors.
Voice user interfaces (VUIs) provide speech recognition capabilities and can assist users in their interactions with apps on many devices. The benefits of VUIs include convenience, speed, efficiency, and a more “human” experience. There is an indication that the younger generation wants to see chat-like platforms for things they need to deal with on a daily basis, including banking. Virtual customer assistants are already popular in the form of chatbots. If we can rely on virtual assistants to chat and text with customers, perhaps the next step will be to allow them to speak with customers. fInnovations and advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will speed that process.
Today, we see companies expand their adoption of intelligent technologies. The use of ML and AI provides multiple benefits to the financial industry, and there are many examples of such technologies already in use:
- Alternative credit decision-making models (ACD) use ML to decrease the risk of loan defaults.
- Smart risk management uses predictive models and reacts to changes proactively instead of reactively.
- Data collection and analysis are used for operational improvements and optimizations, to predict the needs of customers and advertise fintech products they might be interested in.
- Intelligent chatbots and other smart systems are used for customer interaction.
- ML is used to analyze user behavior and detect unusual patterns in user activity/transactions, which might indicate financial fraud or security breaches.
- Vast volumes of trading operations can be put through ML algorithms to make predictions on the stock market. ML algorithms can also be used to monitor data sources in real time, such as news, social networks, and trade results.
Machine learning can be applied in many areas and many forms; we might not even realize the full potential of it yet. According to predictions made by Autonomous Research, AI technologies are projected to reduce banks’ operating costs by 22% by 2030. The only thing that might stall adoption is the shortage of AI and data analysis specialists on the market.
The number of owners of blockchain wallets now stands at 40 million worldwide. This number was just 11 million in 2016. China and the U.S. led blockchain adoption, and many other countries are now following their lead. In fintech, blockchain has multiple uses:
- The transfer of money and assets is usually a slow and expensive process. There are multiple “middlemen” behind every transaction in finance, whether it is a simple money transfer between banks or a transfer of assets like stocks. Every middleman charges a fee and slows down the whole process. Blockchain is a decentralized and secure ledger that can eliminate financial institutions and banks from the process, making transactions faster and cheaper. It is estimated that using blockchain reduces transaction fees by 40-80%.
- The transparency and added security of blockchain could greatly help with auditing and accounting. Blockchain stores data about every transaction from the moment of its inception, and without the ability to modify or forge previous transactions, all the information is distributed and available to the public. It creates a perfect audit trail.
- In digital identity management, it provides additional security for both institutions and consumers. Users still need to register on the blockchain, but they do not need a new registration for each new service, given that those services are also connected to the blockchain.
Smart contracts are programmable codes or computer programs that are intended to automate the execution, control, or documentation of the transfer of assets over the blockchain. They ensure that funds and assets move between participants only when coded preconditions are satisfied. Smart contracts can greatly reduce the amount of paperwork and the need for trusted intermediates and arbitrators. While the legal status of smart contracts is disputed and they usually do not substitute legal agreements, this might change in the future with growing interest from financial institutions and the adoption of common protocols.
What the growth of fintech means for the software development world
There is no doubt that technological innovation in finance is booming and that this trend will continue in the future. The most serious concern that could slow down growth and adoption rates is the lack of specialists on the market. Fintech development is a broad category of software technologies, but the knowledge required to drive them forward is usually extremely specific. Cutting-edge technologies require cutting-edge knowledge. Specialists that are required right now and in the immediate future include:
AI and ML
A sophisticated area of knowledge applied in a sophisticated area of finance requires a perfect understanding of algorithms and the ability to build complex mathematical models. While some might argue that software development, in general, is not rocket science, AI and ML are quite literally applications of science in the software world.
Utilizing Big data not only requires analysts that can extract useful information from large quantities of data, but also the underlying infrastructure that is able to store and process it. Those who can build or utilize large warehouses of data might see an increase in demand for their software development services. Cloud services have already proven their cost-effectiveness and reliability compared to in-house solutions and the growth of cloud-based servers and services in various forms will continue.
Blockchain has been trending for a while, thanks to the popularity of cryptocurrencies. With the pending legislation and regulation, the technology itself is here to stay. Growing interest from countries, institutions, and individuals guarantees high demand for people who can understand blockchain technology. Since the nature of blockchain is constantly evolving, it is important not only to adapt and apply existing solutions, but also to come up with new ideas and applications of blockchain.
Many fintech solutions are applied in customer-facing businesses. With a large and growing number of people using banking and other financial apps on their phones, proper user and customer experience is more important than ever, even for B2B transactions. UI/UX specialists contributed significantly to the adoption of historically inconvenient and convoluted banking apps by making them easier to use and more transparent, but there is still a long way to go.
Cybercrime and financial fraud are growing, and the industry needs to prove to their customers that by using their technology, the data involved is secure and safe. Security is a cross-cutting concern in software development that affects everything from how the codebase of applications is stored to how customer data is stored in databases. In the financial world, security must also be proactive and predictive to detect even the slightest possibility of fraud or unusual activity. How it involves and depends on ML.
Fintech is a rapidly evolving area, and it requires flexibility and agility not just from individuals, but also from whole IT teams. New cutting-edge technologies are introduced every month, and growing interest from regulators requires IT teams to be ready to adapt and change at any moment, while keeping in mind that communication is key.
Final words on fintech trends and innovation
We live in uncertain times and it is difficult to see or predict what awaits us in the future. But there is no doubt that what has moved us forward in the 21st century has been prompted primarily by technology and innovation. Current and future crises might only accelerate innovation and technology adoption. Hard times require modern solutions, and we strive for innovation and progress now more than ever.