Cool Tech: Mobile Banking With Siri-Like Voice Commands

USAA will be among the first banks in the world to start toying with speech recognition software on mobile devices.

Members of USAA will soon be able to ask their iPhone what their current balance is, how much they spent last week and when their next loan payment is due — all through voice commands.

The voice recognition service, dubbed Nina, will be embedded into USAA’s iOS and Android application. To activate it, all a member needs to do is press the speech button in the USAA app and say “my voice is my password.” Then they can use natural language to make a wide range of banking inquiries.

“I need to transfer $500 into my wife’s account this afternoon,” says someone in a demo video.

“Alright,” says Nina, the virtual assistant. “It’s submitted.”

Another man says, “I need to change the address you have on file for me.”

“I can help you right now with that right now in our mobile application,” Nina replies.

Want to know how much you spent at the grocery story last month? Or schedule a payment on your credit card? No problem. Nina is very accommodating, and her grasp of English seems very sophisticated — better that Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant.

Nuance Communications – Nina Mobile Banking Demonstration
A 90-second video overview of the voice recognition technology in banking applications.

USAA says the technology is being deployed to making banking easier for its members, which include over nine million military men and women who are very dependent on mobile devices. Down the road, USAA thinks the voice recognition service will attract new members.

”The virtual assistant has tremendous potential to make banking simpler, faster and more satisfying on mobile devices.”
— Neff Hudson,
AVP Emerging Channels/USAA

Is it a gimmick? No, says USAA CIO Greg Schwartz. “I think it’s going to be something that is going to be with us for a long time and as we learn how our members use this I think it’s going to be better and better.”

“People want to do everything on their mobile phones,” Neff Hudson, USAA’s AVP of Emerging Channels, told Bank Innovation. “The bar never gets lower.”

USAA’s voice recognition app is currently being tested by a group of employees and isn’t planned for public release until some time in early 2013.

“We need to make sure it’s functional,” says Hudson, adding that there’s a fine line between “stupid computer” and “gee, that’s cool.”

The company behind Nina is Nuance Communications, developers of the popular Dragon Naturally Speaking line of voice applications.

Nina was borne after USAA began using Nuance’s voice recognition software last year to route calls through an automated phone tree. After Nuance proved itself with the customer service system, USAA asked the company how it could help with mobile devices. “It was just a natural progression to use Nina,” Schwartz told the Wall Street Journal. “We said we’d like to figure out how to use speech in our mobile channel.”

According to Nuance, over 50% of smartphone owners have installed a mobile banking app on their device, but only 27% actually use it. Consumers say improvements in a few areas would increase their utilization significantly. 34% say they’d appreciate a seamless handoff to a live agent when they need one. 21% want their mobile apps to include more self-service tasks. 18% would simply settle for an app that was easier to use.

The Nina Virtual Assistant is available now from Nuance in American, British, and Australian English. Support for additional languages will arrive later this year. Nuance will be licensing its technology directly to companies in the banking, travel and service sectors.

USAA Isn’t The Only Financial Firm Toying With Voice Tech

While online investing giant eTrade has had voice recognition technology included in its mobile application since April 2012, it is believed that USAA will be the first true U.S. bank to offer the service.

A few months ago, reports started surfacing that the U.S. arm of Spanish bank BBVA were exploring a Siri-like feature for iPhones dubbed “Lola.” According to TechCrunch, BBVA teamed up with the creators of Siri to develop a next-gen mobile “virtual assistant” specifically for banking.

Why the name Lola? BBVA Chief Innovation Officer Beatriz Lara Bartolomé says Lola is named after a real BBVA sales agent in Madrid, Spain. Lola stood out above her peers, with performance scores way above anyone else, so BBVA voice recognition researchers interviewed her about the secrets of her success. Their goal? To recreate Lola virtually. (Siri, Nina, Lola… apparently all voice recognition apps need four-letter names of women with alternating consonants and vowels.)

In a exhibition of the technology, a demonstrator asked out loud for the next payment amount for his loan. Lola answered. He then asked for the payment due date, and got an answer. He was also able to set up a regular mortgage payment. When he asked Lola to help him find a $14 transaction in his account, he didn’t haven’t any, but Lola pointed out five that were close.


The technology for mobile banking voice commands is close to 100%, if it isn’t there already. With mobile channel adoption rates rivaling those of other major banking innovations like ATMs and online banking, there is bound to be a sizeable audience willing to try — and perhaps stick with — voice-driven virtual assistants. Fat fingered mobile users may find voice commands more intuitive and easy to use than the (sometimes awkward) “keyboards” found on smart phones. Some users may not be comfortable talking about their finances in public spaces, but considering the rapid pace with which our collective sense of “privacy” seems to be eroding, this isn’t likely to be a serious long term issue.

Bottom Line: Consumers will adopt any technology that makes banking easier. In that regard, it looks like the mobile banking arms race is starting to heat up. Soon, having mobile banking won’t be enough. Features like remote deposits, P2P payments and voice recognition will be the course de rigueur.

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