Voice Activation

Voice Activated Tracker: Call Me On Alexa

First up in this week’s Voice Activated Tracker, Santander Bank upgraded the voice functionality of its SmartBank mobile application, starting with the iOS version. Santander first rolled out its mobile banking app’s voice technology functionality last year, though its capabilities were much more limited in scope.

The latest upgrade takes inspiration from other voice-enabled technologies and allows consumers to execute a greater variety of more complex actions via voice. Santander banking customers are now able to make payments, execute money transfers, check their account balances, report lost or stolen cards and inquire about spending patterns and particular transactions, all just by using their voice.

Ed Metzger, Santander’s head of technology innovation, was quoted as saying: “The worlds of technology and banking continue to evolve at pace, working hand in hand to deliver a friction-free user experience. We are excited to be the first U.K. high street bank to enable customers to make payments using just their voice, offering them another channel of choice in how they wish to bank.”

Santander has now joined the ranks of other banks utilizing voice technology in their products and services. The difference here is that Santander has opted to begin by using the voice as a means to navigate in-app, while other banks, like Barclays and HSBC, have both taken to using voice as part of the broader biometric security push.

Given the mainstream progress of the voice-enabled device market, it’s reasonable to expect that more financial institutions moving into the digital space will enable voice as a means of mobile application navigation as consumers adapt to the capabilities elsewhere in the device market.

Plus, creating a native capability to navigate with voice in-app could allow for a more seamless transition (at least on the consumer experience end) when rolling out banking features on Google Home, Echo and other voice-activated smart devices in the future — like what Capital One did last year.

In the last Voice Activated Tracker, PYMNTS noted an incongruity in the functionality of voice-enabled devices — namely, the lack of applications on Google Home and Amazon Echo that facilitate person-to-person communication.

It turns out that both major device makers may already be en route to turning smart speakers into phones. Features could even roll out in 2017, though the addition of voice calls won’t come without some bumps in the road — especially since consumers might not be so keen on communicating with each other and with businesses on devices that actively record audio.

While both Amazon and Google give users the option to access and delete audio recordings from the cloud, will it be enough to allay users’ privacy concerns? Given that research indicates consumers consider phone conversations to be one of the top sensitive data categories, ranking third after Social Security numbers and health conditions, the possibility of being recorded in the first place could very well dissuade users from adopting phone functionality if all other factors remain the same.

The privacy issue is larger than consumer fear. Current privacy laws are largely behind the times when it comes new technologies.

“We’re headed to a world of embedded sensors in everything, that measure everything, that see everything, that hear everything,” said Albert Gidari, director for privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. “The reality is that technology … kind of blurs law for privacy.”

There is also debate over how a phone feature would fare under federal law that allows enforcement agencies to wiretap calls in real time. App-to-app internet calls on WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime are currently exempt. Likewise, problems surround users’ ability to use a voice-enabled device to call emergency services. Federal law requires two-way calling services to offer inbound and outbound voice service separately to reach 911. Most internet calling services don’t allow for U.S. 911 calls.

The fact that voice-enabled devices are digitally native could work to skirt telecommunication regulation issues, placing future smart speaker calls in the same camp as other app-to-app call services.

Still, there’s more to hash out. Will the services be free or monetized? Would the line of communication be continuously open in real time or operate in voice message packets? Likewise, would functionality extend to other devices? Could consumers use Alexa to call someone on their smartphone or send a text via voice-to-text capabilities? And perhaps the biggest question: Would this effectively kill off the already troubled legacy landline market?

While the digital communications landscape isn’t entirely uncharted, there’s still work that needs to be done to pin down exactly how all of this will work in the end. So, while voice-enabled device-to-device communication in principle appears to be the next logical step for smart speakers, the reality of the matter remains a bit more complicated.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.

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