'Show Me the Money': How Voice Controls Can Revamp Mobile Banking

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It may not be Siri, but an update to E-Trade Financial's (ETFC) iPhone app portends deeper changes to how people interact with their banks on mobile phones.

Recent innovations in voice control may help the technology overcome its poor reception among consumers (many of which view interactive voice response systems simply as obstacles to talking to a human being). In Apple (AAPL) devices alone, the Siri voice command system and the new iPad's dictation tool are exposing more consumers to the potential of voice control than ever before.

Tapping into this trend, E-Trade added a voice-control feature to its iPhone app in an update it announced Wednesday. The voice commands allow brokerage customers to review their portfolio, initiate trades or look up stock quotes with spoken commands. Users must still tap a command on the screen to confirm any trades set up this way.

"We definitely have seen in the marketplace an increased appetite for voice-enabled technology, and Apple definitely has pioneered the way with Siri," says Eric Johnson, E-Trade's director of mobile platforms. "We thought it was something that was going to be almost expected by customers."

Though the current version is meant for E-Trade's brokerage customers to use, its banking customers may someday manage their accounts with voice commands as well.

"E-Trade does have a banking arm to it … it's safe to assume that there will be future enhancements that will be able to satisfy other customer segments as well," Johnson says.

For brokerage accounts, voice commands are more intuitive than the multi-step process of setting up a trade through a mobile phone's screen, he says.

Without voice, the user must fill out an order ticket by going to that screen, selecting the account and order type, inputting the number of shares and looking up the stock symbol, he says.

With voice recognition, "you can just have a very natural command like 'Buy 50 shares of Apple,' as an example … the overall experience is just enhanced," Johnson says.

E-Trade's interface, which relies on Nuance Communications' (NUAN) Dragon software, could easily be adapted to banking, experts say.

"We're using voice commands, Siri-like commands, on our mobile phones for all kinds of things," says Nicole Sturgill, a research director at TowerGroup. "This doesn't seem all that different … I mean that in a good way."

For voice commands to be useful, they don't have to replace other interfaces, she says. In this way, voice recognition is similar to augmented reality, a technology PNC Financial Services Group (PNC) and U.S. Bancorp (USB) are testing and deploying for helping customers locate branches and ATMs.

"It's not useful constantly, it may not even be useful consistently, but it is useful here and there when you need it," Sturgill says.

If it catches on, voice recognition may lead banks to redesign the layouts of their mobile apps, since removing the need for the keyboard frees up more of the screen to display information, she says. "You can be speaking and looking" at the same time, she says.

If customers make even sporadic user of voice recognition, it paves the way for greater enhancements to security, says Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst at Celent.

"What interests me a lot more is the next stage," he says. "Once this is so generally accepted and utilized within multiple apps, be it banking or otherwise," people will be "accepting of a voiceprint as a biometric for authentication."

Voice could complement or replace commonly used credentials such as a PIN, Jegher says. "It's a lot easier [for a thief] to grab your PIN than to grab your voice."

E-Trade also added a feature that lets customers scan bar codes on products they see to pull up the manufacturer's information and buy its stock, Johnson says. It added mobile check deposit in January.

E-Trade does not expect these features to prompt customers to make a specific number of additional trades, Johnson says, but the company expects an increase in customer loyalty.

"By making it easier" to use the mobile app, "you're definitely reducing hurdles and you're giving them another reason to use E-Trade," he says.

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