“Alexa, Can I Afford to Buy Tacos?” Use Case of USAA and the Voice API

One of the new frontiers for companies is the concept of “voice.” In the next few years, this new interface will revolutionize how people consume content and interact with the web, businesses, friends and their home. The days of the clunky—any often novelty—rigid form voice interaction with SIRI will be replaced with devices that understand natural language and provide relevant information without much fuss. And similar to the web—and later social—it will be a medium that will be natural for digital marketers and companies to explore sooner rather than later.

All the major tech companies are banking on voice—Cortana (Microsoft), Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon) and Google Assistant, so it’s only a matter of time for the tech to be more space age than gimmick. The battle for a voice “standard” is on, much like the battles of yore between VHS/Beta, HD/Blu-ray and other modern web standards.

While all that is getting sussed out, now is the time for companies to figure out how they are going to evolve as customers move to more of a voice driven operating systems. One company that dipped a toe into the voice-driven world this past week was USAA, a banking and insurance company that serves our military members and their families.

One might think of a bank as more of a stodgy company, but USAA has always had an eye that looked towards the future. In fact, they were the bank that pioneered remote check deposits via the iPhone, a technology that has saved us all countless number of hours at the teller window. And now Darrius Jones, the assistant vice president of USAA Labs, has a pilot program designed to quickly answer questions about a user’s financial situation.

Folks can gain quick insight into their budgets by asking Alexa questions like, “Do I have enough money to buy the office to breakfast tacos?” The device will look at the user’s transactions and associated buckets and tell them if they are on track—or overspending—their budget for the month. The person can then make up their mind whether or not they should make the purchase (which in San Antonio happens to always be “yes” when it comes to tacos!).

USAA’s implementation of Alexa is the perfect use case and can save folks a lot of time while delivering the right information. Prior to Alexa, a person would have to fish their smartphone out of their pocket, unlock it, minimize the apps, find the USAA app, login and then manually skim through the recent transactions, all while trying to recall the latest number what they’ve budgeted for food. Instead, with a quick conversational question to an omnipresent computer, the answer is delivered as quickly as it was asked. This is the incarnation of Star Trek’s computer that we’ve all dreamed of having.

But to get to the point to even offer the service in beta, Jones and USAA realized that they had to help augment what Alexa could interpret and understand. Plainly put, humans don’t talk like computers or robots in a very clinical and straightforward manner. Language is more nuanced and often sloppy, with slang, jargon and even works that can mean different things (“Check my cash balance” is much different than “Cash my check”). Being able to speak naturally and to have these devices actually understand what you want is what’s holding back progress.

Natural language processing (NLP) is not just a barrier to voice interfaces like Alexa, it’s also the current barrier to chatbot implementation, like Facebook’s Messenger platform. But while chatbots have the ability to augment their ability to interpret language with menus and buttons, it is a little more complex when it comes to devices driven by voice.

Overcoming this challenge was massively important to Jones, according to the MySA article, and to assist he enlisted the help of Clinc Co to better interpret our natural style rather than having humans speak in discrete commands. “No one asked for Alexa to be conversational, but we realized that in not being conversational people weren’t adopting (Alexa), and so we had to find the answer,” Jones said in the interview. If you’re interested in how well the team did, their beta is currently open to the first 400 customers that sign up.

Applications like Uber and interface’s like Amazon’s “1-Click” ordering have all proven success because they’ve removed friction from our lives. A car can be hailed without ever having to call a service and items can be ordered without having to enter payment details. The voice application programmable interface (API) looks to further push the boundaries of frictionless experiences. Now is the time for your company to evaluate how it’s going to adopt the new voice interface. Not doing so is akin to the person back in the 90s thinking that the whole “internet thing” was just a fad.

Follow Garrett on Twitter at @pinojo and sign up to the Marketing Bytes newsletter here!


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