MONTPELIER, Vt. – Credit unions are spending more money and time than ever in creating a retail environment in their branches, so why do they throw that mentality out the window when it comes to their Web sites. That’s what Rob Smart, executive vice president of new business for Web design firm Level 9 (www.l9.com) here wants to know. Level 9 is just breaking into the CU space and it’s asking some tough questions of the establishment. “We’re basically advocating that credit unions start viewing the Internet channel in a way that is consistent with the way they view their other channels, and then starting down a process of design and development,” said Smart. Level 9 has been the Web site agency of record for Fiserv for the last three-and-a-half years, and has had tremendous success working with retail companies. Probably its best known work is the site of the Switzerland Tourism Board. That site is available in six languages and is customized for 35 different geographical regions. “We call what we do interaction design. Somebody coming to the site can quickly cut through the infrastructure and get ultimately what’s most important, the content,” said Smart. Smart said transaction components are obviously very important to credit unions, but they need to be almost invisibly integrated into CU sites. “If you were to define the Holy Grail of sites it would be where the transaction capability is completely blended into the public portion of the site. It doesn’t look any different, doesn’t feel any different,” said Smart. He said too many CUs have purchased packaged Net banking pieces that take members totally away from the feel of the rest of the CU’s site and within the parameter’s of the Net banking vendor’s design. “When you log onto some of these online banking systems, everything else disappears. That doesn’t happen when you go into a physical branch,” said Smart. “Credit unions are going to have to start going back to transaction vendors and say `work with who is doing my Web design,’ ” said Smart. The next step for the CU industry, said Smart, is to have a consistent look and feel across all of a CU’s channels. Smart doesn’t believe in adding the latest and greatest to CU sites. “ Everyone is hanging things on their sites because they think they have to. Would you build your physical branch that way?” He said portals bombing out showed how dangerous hanging components can be without a strategy. Tying financial education into the CU is one of the most powerful things CUs can do online, said Smart. “Put up an interaction program on the Web site, with content to teach young people the very basics of personal finance. Isf they get a passing grade, put $20 in a savings account for them. Over time elevate the type and depth of content. Create ways for external parties to transfer and wire money into their account. It’s a tremendous opportunity for educating young people,” said Smart. Level 9′s first CU client was New England FCU. -pgentile@cutimes.com