Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank’s Studio B Innovation Lab is a unique space inside the Kensington High Street store where the general public, B customers, technology partners, experts and charities come together to design and create meaningful services that make everyday life better.

In the Lab we have been working on a new topic each month. June’s challenge was ‘Speak to Me’, which gave us the opportunity to explore voice and chat technology and find ways to use these technologies to solve real life problems.

Conversational interfaces

We started by putting the technology in context. At the dawn of consumer computing, we had command line interfaces, typing text in MS-DOS. Graphical interfaces were the next big leap in usability, with visual metaphors such as windows helping users get to grips with drag and drop features.

From desktop, to laptop, to mobile and tablet, the last twenty years of computing has been dominated by screens, clicking and tapping.

Two forces are shaping the move towards conversational interfaces, interfaces which can involve typing but can also be voice-controlled.

The first force is the ubiquity of messaging platforms. We’ve grown up texting on mobiles, chatting on instant messaging, using Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp to organise our social lives: it’s a natural progression to summon services via chat.

The second is improvements in voice recognition technology. Accuracy is now over 90% for all the industry leaders, so it’s becoming normal to speak to any Apple, Google or Amazon device and expect to be understood.

Building bots

With consumers spending more time in chat apps, chatbot startups are springing up. Plum, for example, is helping people save through a Facebook Messenger bot. As banks are increasingly disintermediated by FinTech upstarts, how can they stay ahead of the pack?

Banks still have a strong reputation as trusted advisors. What if the bank of the future used the personal data it has on each customer to provide personalised, impartial, predictive lifestyle guidance? Looking five years ahead, we can imagine a family of B Bots giving advice on careers, savings, property and other areas.

By connecting with social networks and data providers, banks could build a more complete picture of how customers could fulfill their potential. A chat prompted by missed savings goals could lead to considering a new career or relocating to get a better work life balance. Different bots would have different personalities, appropriate to their expertise. You can check out our prototypes, Maximus and Molly.

Ambient accessibility

In our second sprint of the month, we partnered with Amazon to develop new Alexa skills for people with sight loss. As voice technology is embedded in more connected devices in our homes, offices and public spaces, we’re preparing for a future where ambient intelligence is all around us. Interviewing blind and partially-sighted people to learn about their needs, we realised smart home tech can lighten the cognitive load of daily tasks. We prototyped a voice activated service called DoubleCheck, which aggregates smart lightbulbs, connected thermostats and local council services into one easy interaction, so a user can do a quick check of their home before leaving each day.

The team ‘testing’ their audio game with David Clark from CYBG

While this service was designed with sight loss in mind, it would also be useful for the growing percentage of early adopters using smart home tech. We envision Amazon’s Alexa becoming a platform for connecting and controlling home devices, and eventually plugging into broader intangible consumer services like banking.

Immersive audio gaming

Another gap our research identified was the lack of engaging, interactive, voice and audio driven games. Isolation and depression disproportionately affect people with sight loss, and most entertainment is primarily visual. Inspired by choose your own adventure stories, we built BlackOut, a voice driven Alexa game in which you escape the room by piecing together audio clues in an immersive soundscape. Because the puzzle levels are set in dark environments, players have to come up with solutions that are not dependent on vision, building empathy with people who live with sight loss.

Testing the BlackOut demo for Amazon’s judges, Meryem Tom and David Low.

Our Labbers loved learning to develop Alexa skills! Coding a conversation is a creative, intuitive process, much closer to service design than to building mobile apps. Design for conversational interfaces is inherently human-centred, working with emotion, empathy, tone and nuance: we’re just at the beginning of understanding how it will transform consumer experience!

Creative coders: our Labbers modelling their Amazon Alexa developer T-shirts!

Speak to me

All in all, this was a fascinating month exploring the true potential of conversational technologies, particularly where we could see the problems that can be solved by them.

If you would like to chat with us about how conversational technologies might meet your customers’ needs, or want to learn more about our innovation team and working with us, please get in touch.