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A Guiding Voice

National Australia Group enables blind to bank at ATMs with Text-to-Speech solution.

Until recently, getting cash from ATMs has been a nightmare for the blind. In order to make banking more accessible for the blind, the National Australia Group (NAG), a division of the National Australia Bank Group (U.S. $411.3 billion in assets), unveiled speaking ATMs designed for the blind and partially sighted at Northern Bank (Belfast), National Irish Bank (Dublin), Clydesdale Bank (Glasgow) and Yorkshire Bank (Leeds, England). (Editors Note: Northern Bank and National Irish Bank were acquired by Copenhagen-based Danske Bank in April 2005.)

As a result of the U.K.'s Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, the banks wanted a solution that would enable visually impaired customers to independently use the ATM network, according to Garth Graham, ATM projects manager for the banks. Since the banks already relied on Phoenix Interactive's (London, Ontario) VISTAatm Windows-based, multivendor ATM software, NAG partnered with the technology provider in July 2004 to customize and deploy Phoenix's Text-to-Speech software at select ATMs, relates Graham.

The software enables the blind and partially sighted to access an automated voice guide by plugging a set of headphones into an audio jack that is fitted to the front of the ATM, according to Phoenix. Regardless of an ATM's manufacturer, Phoenix's VISTAatm software dynamically detects the location of each device - such as the keypad and cash dispenser - and the Text-to-Speech service provides an audio orientation of the machine's layout, talking users through each step of the banking process. Currently, Text-to-Speech has the capability to support several languages, including English, Spanish and French.

Phoenix provided NAG executives with a demonstration of the solution in October 2004. "Anything that we considered needed additional work, such as the pronunciation of certain words, was logged and adjusted by Phoenix," Graham says.

A Helping Ear

Trials with visually impaired users took place in Belfast in December 2004. "The visually impaired provided invaluable feedback to the bank and Phoenix," says Graham. "Any of the issues they encountered in test conditions were rectified by Phoenix," he adds. "Feedback was extremely positive with no negative comments."

After minor changes were made to the software based on the feedback and additional testing, the first installations took place in April, and all four banks had ATMs outfitted with the solution by September. A project staff member visited each site and trained the on-site ATM staff on the new ATM facility. Currently, there are more than eight sites live in the U.K. and Ireland.

Though no platform changes were necessary to run the software, each ATM selected to run Text-to-Speech required the installation of an audio jack and a memory upgrade. "We didn't anticipate the cost and difficulty in attaching the audio jack to certain ATM model types already in the field," Graham concedes. But, "A factory-fitted solution is now in place."

Despite the challenge, Text-to-Speech has exceeded the banks' expectations, according to Graham. Each week the banks are experiencing an increase in transactions by the visually impaired, and, of course, the solution helps the banks comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, he continues. But, more important, their visually impaired customers are enjoying better service. For example, Graham notes, the visually impaired now can change their own PINs, providing stronger security.

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Snapshot

Institution: The National Australia Group, a division of the National Australia Bank Group.

Assets: $411.3 billion in assets (NAB Group).

Business Challenge: Comply with the Disability Discrimination Act by enabling the blind to bank at ATMs.

Solution: Phoenix Interactive's (London, Ontario) Text-to-Speech software.

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