Mobile & Online Payments UX

How to fix NFC and help it go mainstream

NFC phones
Written by Simon Taylor

Simon Taylor asks, does NFC have what it takes to go mainstream? It must become more open first.

Near field communication (NFC) promised to turn your phone into the digital key to your identity, transport and money. The problem? This promise has been around since the late 1990s, and shows no sign of crossing the chasm.

How does NFC work?

The idea is you present your NFC device to the NFC reader, and almost instantly the transaction is complete. This will be familiar to those who use the Oyster card on the Tube in London.

The user experience problem

Have you tried paying with a contactless card? You’re never quite sure when to present the card to the reader, and often it can take a couple of seconds for the reader to recognise the card. This creates a sloppy experience, and one that means only those with unlocked Nexus devices are using NFC today.

Google solved this in peer to peer using the tag dispatch system. Sadly, the likes of Igenico, Verifone and Streamline, who build the payments terminals most retailers use, don’t react nearly as well as an Android device does. Herein lies the problem.

How should NFC work?

  1. NFC must be as easy to use as a touchscreen. This means overcoming any lag (like the contactless card example above). This requires the same kind of user experience as touchscreens now have. Do you remember those awful touchscreens from 10 years ago? Or the one at your local supermarket … vs your phone. NFC has to make that kind of leap in user experience.
  2. NFC software needs to be context-sensitive. When recognising another NFC device, both devices need to know how to play with each other and what the rules of the game are. For a specialist NFC app working with an NFC terminal, this isn’t a huge problem, but if you just want to put your phone near the ticket machine at the train station, this becomes a problem.
  3. NFC must become more open. NFC being a standard that has been driven by the GSMA is, needless to say, very mobile-operator-driven. The whole ecosystem is designed to be managed and leased by the provider of the NFC chip, which in turn resells that access. This is a huge financial hurdle to adoption. Why should OEMs and big business adopt NFC if the MNO gets to be the gatekeeper and charge for the privilege?

Crossing the chasm

To solve these challenges, old school hardware manufacturers will need to embrace a Google-like approach to NFC. Speed and user experience is everything. Contextual sharing (media, contacts, documents) has largely been solved, and I expect Apple to follow where Google has led. Adopting this approach would benefit:

  • security (door locks, car locks, building access)
  • transport (rail, airlines – similar to how barcodes work)
  • ticketing (events, sports)
  • forms of identify (passport app, driving licence app)
  • logistics (RFID-style self-aware packaging).

I’m sure you can think of plenty more, but the above are some of the more common examples. My speculation is that this is why Apple has focused on Passbook initially. Apple owns a portion of the user experience. The older organisations that own logistics and specialist ticketing equipment may take a little longer to catch up!

Do you think NFC has what it takes to go mainstream? Will another contender such as Bluetooth 4 become standard because it’s not driven by the GSMA? How can older manufacturing-led businesses improve their NFC performance?

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– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here.

About the author

Simon Taylor

Simon Taylor is co-founder and director of blockchain at 11:FS, and previously worked with Barclays and TSYS. He is a regular name on various fintech 'powerlists'.

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