What went into developing Absa’s ChatBanking on WhatsApp

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When it comes to developing a solution or service that’s designed to target as customers as Absa’s new ChatBanking on WhatsApp does, you very seldom hear how much time and effort went into making it a reality.

That’s why we took the chance to sit down with CIO for virtual channels at Absa, Jacques Barkhuizen. We discussed the process, along with asking him about some of the more unknown features that this platform touts.

With Absa aiming to be the first bank in South Africa to boast services focused on the conversational banking side of things, the addition of ChatBanking on WhatsApp now means Absa has three separate offerings to make things easier for its customers.

Here’s what Barkhuizen had to say when asked about how ChatBanking on WhatsApp came to fruition and what the platform will enable its users to do.

htxt.africa: You mention that ChatBanking on WhatsApp has gone through a two-and-a-half to three-year development process. What did your team learn during that time?

Jacques Barkhuizen: We started off with Twitter as a pioneering solution to see if it was possible to use social media as a banking tool, and we learned quite a bit during that process.

A lot of this was driven by the fact that many of the social media platforms at the time opened up their APIs, which is why we did Twitter and Facebook Messenger.

Working with the WhatsApp version, there was quite a bit of time spent on the design elements, particularly when it came to creating a platform that customers could use easily. We therefore dealt with customers in terms of how they interacted with mobile software and what they wanted from a digital experience.

That’s where we learned the most I think.

htxt.africa: During your presentation, you affectionately dubbed this a “dumb bot”. Why so?

Jacques Barkhuizen: By that we mean that it was built for a specific purpose.

If you type or say “Hi” into ChatBanking, it will give you a limited amount of responses. We didn’t build deep learning into the framework at this point in time.

The reason why is that you can often get carried away with technology, trying to implement unnecessary elements like natural language or trying to build another Siri [Apple’s digital assistant]. We didn’t want to build another Siri.

We wanted to facilitate transactional banking inside of an authenticated virtual world. That was the key.

htxt.africa: Given the sensitive nature of content that the ChatBanking on WhatsApp will house and have access to, are there any concerns about possible data breaches?

Jacques Barkhuizen: Well the API for this solution is not publicly available, and Absa is one of a handful of companies that has access to it.

This means that all the data is encrypted end-to-end, and nothing is stored with WhatsApp at all. We’re really using WhatsApp as a conduit to deliver our messages and receive messages to customers.

From a security perspective, the encryption happens all the way to where our data is housed in the backend.

The other aspect of security that we’ve integrated into this process is onboarding. When a customer is onboarded onto this platform it has to be done on a secure channel. There are also a series of security checks and steps that must be completed before onboarding can be done. If any one of those checks or steps fails, the entire process is shut down and we’ll send an alert.

From there an accept/reject message pushed to your device via the Absa mobile banking app, and once done, we’re good to go.

The final security feature we’ve built-in is fraud detection software, so if there is any activity that is peculiar or strange, an alert will go off.

htxt.africa: When it comes to more complex transactions, such as applying for a loan, will that kind of process ever be a part of ChatBanking end-to-end?

Jacques Barkhuizen: When it comes to those kind of elements to ChatBanking, everything is customer-led.

It that regard we’ll work with customer focus groups, and create a massive backlog.

That backlog is determined by customer needs, so it’s not just somebody that sits at Absa that determines what the next feature on ChatBanking will be, but rather the critical feedback we get from our customers that drives such decisions.

htxt.africa: Your team also alluded to Easter eggs being a part of ChatBanking. Does that mean that this platform has a South African flavour?

Jacques Barkhuizen: Absolutely.

One of the things we showcased today was a pirate theme, as there was an International Pirate Day when we were developing this solution. It worked almost as a proof of concept to see if other languages, and other fun elements could be added to ChatBanking.

Some of those easter eggs will be stumbled upon by our users, and they can certainly lean a bit more about the platform as a result.

htxt.africa: Finally, ChatBanking currently supports six South African languages. Will there ever be a stage when all official languages are catered for?

Jacques Barkhuizen: It really all depends on the customers.

If there is a need, we can certainly accommodate.


[Image – Absa]

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.