Voicing Their Needs: Can Voice Technology Make Payments Easier for Digital Newcomers?
Our third blog of the Digital Payments for the Next Half Billion series explores if voice technology can bridge the digital divide and provide a more accessible way of making transactions digitally.
Mohanan (60) recently retired from his job at a Public Sector Enterprise in Kerala. He lives with his wife in a small house that he built, close to his ancestral village near Thrissur. Mohanan’s daughter, Priya is married and settled in Bangalore. As a retirement present, she gifted him a smartphone. This is the first time he has owned a smartphone. His job largely involved a lot of paperwork. It was only last year that he was required to start working on a computer (which he often asked his tech-savvy junior assistant to do). Mohanan is what you would call a digital non-native1!
As you can imagine, it takes him a considerable amount of effort to adapt to the new language of technology. Nonetheless, being proud of his daughter’s gift, he starts using the smartphone for some basic functions. He watches cricket highlights on YouTube and occasionally receives a video call from his daughter on WhatsApp. Beyond that, he isn’t aware of many use cases that could benefit him. Mohanan still uses a feature phone as his primary device for all practical purposes. There is a reluctance to learn things that may be too complicated or seemingly risky, for instance, financial transactions!
So far, all his typical financial requirements have been met offline, whether it be payment of utility bills, buying groceries, booking train tickets or paying LIC premiums. With the rising popularity of UPI and QR code scanners all around him, Mohanan understands the convenience of being able to pay digitally. For instance, his advancing age does not allow him to queue up for hours to make a simple electricity bill payment anymore or go to the bank frequently. He does not want to burden his daughter with his ‘tech’ queries. If only digital transactions could be simpler and easier to understand for a vernacular-first and digital non-native individual like Mohanan!
Enter UPI 123Pay…
A voice-based digital payment platform from the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) that allows UPI payments through a partly conversational, and partly command-driven interface. The solution works regardless of whether one uses a smartphone or a feature phone. Both these aspects are highly preferable for digital non-natives. Mohanan decides to try this out. His young nephew helps him to call an IVR number linked to UPI 123Pay and helps set up a UPI ID and PIN through a simple one-time registration. The process involves speaking the name of his bank and entering the basic details of his debit card. Once the registration is complete, Mohanan calls the same IVR number again. He wants to pay his electricity bill. He is able to navigate through the instructions provided by the IVR call as it is in his vernacular Malayalam. In a matter of a few steps and a few voice commands, he successfully manages to pay his electricity bill digitally!
UPI 123Pay from the NPCI is seen as a significant improvement over the existing feature phone-based digital payment solutions of USSD and *99#. Currently, the solution can be accessed through any one of these four channels.
Note that UPI 123Pay is currently a hybrid voice-based solution. It still requires partial inputs through a keypad. However, it still enables UPI transactions without internet connectivity and in multiple regional languages, making it a key innovation for digitally non-native cohorts. A fully conversational payment transaction is the final frontier in this evolution but industry experts suggest that this may be at least a couple of years away.
NPCI expects that almost 10% of payments would be routed via Voice Payments over the next five years. A third of these transactions are expected to come from Rural India.
Voice: The next big evolution in human technology interaction?
The evolution of human technology interfaces has progressed towards more natural and intuitive interactions. The use of a keyboard, mouse, and graphical user interfaces (GUIs) made it easier for people to interact with digital devices. This was followed by the rise of touch and gesture-based interactions, such as those used on smartphones and tablets. The next phase in this evolution is in the form of voice-controlled interfaces, such as those commonly found in virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home.
However, applications in this growing space are largely aimed at enhancing convenience and are still seen as ‘good-to-have’ additions to existing use cases. Recent initiatives from India such as the Government’s Bhasini2 and innovative solutions from startups such as MissCallPay3, ToneTag4 and SlangLabs5 hold promise towards making this technology accessible and affordable for all. An important area of application for these solutions is towards enabling financial inclusion through voice-based payments for the underserved populations of India.
We spoke to Kumar Rangarajan from Slang Labs about the impact that voice-based solutions can have in the digital payments space.
“Just as the QR Code revolutionized how we make P2M payments, voice can have a similar impact on P2P and other types of transactions such as bill payments by enhancing both convenience and accessibility in making these payments.”
Why are voice-based payments a big deal for the people of Bharat?
Experiences like Mohanan’s are not as uncommon as perceived, especially outside India's major cities and towns. There continue to be nearly 450 million feature phone users in India6. Many of these users acknowledge the convenience offered by digital payments but feel handicapped by the lack of solutions beyond smartphones that usually require good internet connectivity. As we highlighted in our earlier blog in this series, connectivity is not yet universal. Nearly 25000 villages across India are still not connected to the internet7.
What’s more… non-English internet usage is on the rise. Nearly 200 million people in India who speak English, can already access the internet. Google reported that 9 out of 10 new users who are being introduced to the Internet for the first time, are non-English speakers8 who are connected using regional languages. Another study reveals a 45% growth in Active Internet Users in rural India since 20199. Current digital interfaces are designed with the English language at the forefront. While keyboards and other inputs in regional languages are increasingly being used, they are usually not as intuitive and most solutions are often retro-fitted. This further handicaps non-English speakers who are unable to intuitively enter inputs in their vernacular language. Voice-based technology can alleviate this problem.
Voice-based payments particularly can have significant benefits for the financially excluded through…
What are some challenges in enabling voice-based payments for Bharat?
With ‘voice’ increasingly being seen as a critical channel to get the next 500 million in India to use digital payment, it is crucial that solutions in this space are designed effectively keeping the digitally non-native users in mind. As Kumar highlights, it's important to have a deeper understanding of how people actually use voice technology in order to make it more effective.
“Our experience with voice search suggests that, contrary to what we believe, command-based interactions tend to be preferred to more conversational interactions. People are good at speaking but not so great at listening. Having too many follow-ups can break the overall experience for a user. The feedback from the voice-based solution has to be very precise.”
Understanding the financial lives of the end-users is crucial to developing ‘anchor use-cases’. These use cases may differ completely from what worked well for the original UPI adopters. For instance, microfinance is an important source of borrowing for low-income households. Relevant messaging around enabling easy EMI repayments may ensure regular and sustained use of voice-based payment platforms.
In addition to anchor use cases, creating meaningful onboarding experiences will ensure sustained use. Registration is only the start of a user’s journey on a platform. As many potential users are likely to be new to formal banking or largely familiar with brick-and-mortar banking experiences, it is important to make solutions simple (low cognitive workload), to allow users to explore unfamiliar products. Timely user prompts and demos can help users familiarize themselves with the solution. Further, incentivising initial transactions (as was the case with the original UPI solution) can help build financial confidence among newer users.
An added complexity for a country like India is the presence of over 100 major languages with multiple dialects. Significant variations exist even within districts of the same state. To establish trust among first-time users, it's important to ensure that voice technologies take these complexities into account and provide accurate experiences. Trust is hard to regain once lost, particularly when financial transactions are involved.
Providing grievance redressal mechanisms that offline-first users are familiar with can also help improve trust. For example, having toll-free numbers with actual human interactions initially will build confidence. Providing tangible proof, be it a reference number for grievances filed or receipts for completed transactions (in the form of an SMS or other mediums that can be accessed at will) are likely to make users trust the solution.
While voice-based payments are still at a nascent stage, their potential in enabling the financially excluded to also transact digitally is clear. With a market of nearly 500 million users, if designed well, there could be another potential ‘Google Pay’ or ‘Phone Pe’ story in the making for fintechs working in this space.
Digital native is a term coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 to describe the generation of people who grew up in the era of ubiquitous technology, including computers and the internet, typically millennials and beyond.
A National Public Digital platform using AI and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to deliver digital solutions in regional Indian languages.
MissCallPay works on a solution that allows users to make payments by giving a missed call without the need for a smartphone or internet connectivity.
ToneTag works on a solution that will enable devices to accept contactless payments via sound wave-based proximity technology.
Slang labs have developed an in-app voice assistant, that enables the app’s users to talk to it in multiple languages and for the app to talk back to them in the same language.
Parkin, B. (2021, July 21). Google and Jio seek to convert 450m Indians into smartphone users. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/73f2b76c-3edc-490d-b30e-6407fb69e9db
Sharma, M. (2021, December 8). Over 25,000 villages in India still lack mobile, internet coverage: Centre in Lok Sabha. India Today. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/over-25000-villages-lack-mobile-internet-coverage-centre-1885733-2021-12-08
Ghosh, M. (2017, April 26). 90% Of New Internet Users in India Are Non-English Speaking; English User Growth Has Stalled: Google. Trak.in - Indian Business of Tech, Mobile & Startups. https://trak.in/tags/business/2017/04/26/india-internet-user-growth-non-english-speaking/
Nielsen. (2022, June 27). Bharat 2.0 Study reveals a 45% growth in Active Internet Users in rural India since 2019. https://www.nielsen.com/news-center/2022/nielsens-bharat-2-0-study-reveals-a-45-growth-in-active-intern+et-users-in-rural-india-since-2019/
All artworks are designed by Himanshi Parmar and Rahi Deroy from NOCT.
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