USAA Readies Voice Recognition for Its iPhone App

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USAA is giving its iPhone carrying members something to talk about.

The San Antonio company is adding voice recognition to its iPhone app in four states on March 5, followed by a full rollout to all members on April 5. The Siri-like feature, called Virtual Mobile Assistant, will broaden the ways in which members can communicate what they want to do through the mobile banking app while allowing USAA to make mobile banking appealing to a broader range of customers.

USAA offers insurance, banking, investment and retirement products and services to more than 9.4 million members of the U.S. military and their families.

At 2012's end, the USAA iPhone app had been downloaded more than 2.25 million times.

USAA, which has a strong reputation for innovating faster than other financial firms, will launch the first generation of voice assistance with support of more than 200 navigational commands, including allowing members to speak or type queries related to fund transfers, bill payment and answering questions like: what's my balance?

"We are really excited about the possibilities," Neff Hudson, assistant vice president of emerging channels, tells BTN. "We're confident that our membership will share in the [enthusiasm] and we're equally sure they'll want more. …Once you commit to a platform like this, you have got to commit to making it better. We can't celebrate too much."

The innovation, which will get front and center real estate within USAA's iPhone app, is designed to require fewer steps to complete financial tasks, like bill pay, than typed answers.

Powering the forthcoming capability is Nuance Communication Inc.'s virtual assistant Nina, which combines Nuance's speech recognition, text-to-speech, voice biometrics and natural language understanding technology.

Beyond identifying Nuance as a leader in the natural language space, Hudson says USAA chose the provider because it shared a partner, Yodlee, a personal finance management (PFM) provider based in Redwood, Calif. USAA also already used Nuance technology in its interactive voice response system.

Beyond improving the customer experience, USAA expects Virtual Mobile Assistant to help USAA serve a broader population through the mobile channel. "Voice opens [mobile banking] up to a whole new group of people," Hudson says.

That list includes: members who are reticent to tap their way through financial tasks (perhaps due to fat fingers), the elderly and those with disabilities, says Hudson.

Though Hudson anticipates that some industry players are soon going live with voice biometrics to authenticate customers, USAA won't be first out of the gate. "We won't rush that. …We're looking at a mixed model," says Hudson. "Ultimately, voice will play a role in authentication."

In debuting voice assistance, USAA is blazing ahead of the financial services industry pack, with only a few publically known exceptions.

Investing giant e*Trade Financial Corp. has included voice recognition technology in its mobile application since 2012, while BBVA has been experimenting with voice technology, too. Meanwhile, Fiserv teased a voice command technology within mobile banking as a proof of concept at a a fintech innovation conference held last autumn in New York.

"Implementing voice will become a hotly contested space," Hudson says.

The forthcoming iPhone app enhancement underscores how USAA continues to champion unique capabilities of smartphones by devoting product innovation to a channel it believes will outpace website penetration in the next three to five years. Currently, 50% of the membership regularly uses the website today, while about 25% of its membership uses mobile devices for everyday financial activities, like viewing deposit and credit card account details, transferring funds, depositing checks and paying bills.

"We are intrigued by how big [mobile] will get," Hudson says.

Indeed, USAA recently announced more than 5.2 million members had downloaded its mobile apps for iPhone, Android and iPad by 2012's end. That compares to 3.3 million downloads at 2011's end.

"There's another generation of banking innovation that will drive growth in the next couple of years," Hudson says. "Mobile will be bigger than the web. … We're starting to see mobile live up to its hype."

Within USAA's near-term projects, Hudson hinted that the company will make mobile wallet news in the next three to six months.

Regardless of which features hit the channel, Hudson stresses "how they must be reimagined for mobile."

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