So much of the focus in bank technology is on making life easier for everyday customers, but a handful of banks and fintechs are trying to simplify banking for everyone.
Recently some banks have introduced products or mobile features intended to help customers who are otherwise being passed over by technology because of disabilities, language barriers or other factors.
USAA has introduced a remote-deposit function that is guided by voice. Bank of America has committed to making sure the Spanish-language settings on its app are on par with the English version's. And Royal Bank of Canada has set up kiosks in its branches that offer real-time connections with interpreters.
The efforts vary widely, but there are a few common threads. One, banks are starting to look beyond how they can build loyalty outside of the typical customers. Secondly, they are acknowledging that their customers want to bank on their terms. Lastly, voice-enabled functionality is only going to become a bigger part of what they do.
"I am speaking with clients a lot about the lack of real-time customer service options through mobile banking," said Emmett Higdon, the director of Javelin Strategy & Research's mobile practice. "For most banks, my only real-time servicing option through mobile banking is click-to-call to speak with an agent."
That shortcoming is what is driving interest in chat bots and other innovations, Higdon said. "Expectations being set by [companies in other businesses], largely through social media channels, are driving customers to expect real-time responses from their bank, as well," he said.
Higdon is currently preparing a study on voice technology in banking. Survey results show that about half of consumers say they would be likely or very likely to verbally access their mobile banking apps, he said. About half said they would do so because it is more convenient than typing.
San Antonio-based USAA has been at the forefront of virtual assistance. It began offering its customers the ability to ask questions via its mobile app in 2013. Software developer Harmony Clauer-Salyers noticed a problem when she joined the mobile deposits group. So much of the app was already accessible by voice, but remote-deposit capture, one of mobile banking's most popular products, was not. She decided to pitch the idea through the company's internal innovation hub, and the company rolled it out over the summer.
"For someone who is not visually impaired, [remote-deposit capture] is just a convenience," Clauer-Salyers said. For someone who is visually impaired, "it is not a convenience, but a life-changer."
Higdon agreed that the innovation is a major improvement for those who have trouble seeing or are completely blind. "Mobile device issues are legendary with visually-impaired users," Higdon said.
While making sure the same services are available in English and Spanish sounds like a more straightforward undertaking than figuring out how to help the visually impaired deposit a check through a mobile phone, such an endeavor is tough at a large bank. As part of its redesigned app rollout this summer, Bank of America included Spanish-language functionality.
"We've been wanting to do this for quite some time, but we wanted to make sure the technology was mature enough" to ensure it was an end-to-end translation, Edward "EJ" Achtner, an executive in B of A's digital banking department, said in an interview earlier this year. "Historically, what had been done was just taking the English-language page and doing a baseline translation. That's OK, but not the best solution."
Committing to digital parity for its Spanish-speaking customers is particularly important because Latinos have embraced mobile banking at a faster rate than other groups. Earlier this month, Bank of America released its 'Trends in Consumer Mobility' report, which found that 78% of Hispanic consumers were using mobile banking, compared with 51% of non-Hispanics.
Perhaps the banks' new inclusive products and features can be partly attributed to competition from fintech firms, which are known for their customer-centric innovations. Essentially, they put the customers' needs at the forefront and innovate from there, they say, while banks have historically been product-focused.
The mobile financial services startup Bee is a good example of being committed to understanding customer needs. Or as Vinay Patel, the chief executive and co-founder of Bee, puts it: having a "fairly heavy-handed data approach."
Through its research, it has learned that its potential customers may not recognize that the stacked horizontal lines — commonly referred to as the hamburger -- found on websites using responsive design indicate where the menu is located.
"Our potential customers didn't have that association," Patel said. In its research, the firm found that when its asked its potential customers to find the menu on such a site many couldn't, and their reactions were "to feel bad. They apologized. They did not get angry. They had the expectation that they should be able to do it."
So, no hamburger for Bee.
"We spend a lot of time doing different phases of testing with our customers; that's the primary way we surface what needs they have that are not being fulfilled," Patel said. "We want to build a product that customers find valuable and it is valuable when they use it regularly."