With mobile playing an increasingly important role in how the world consumes, converses and transacts, dominated by talk of converged omni-channel communications loosely defined as SMS, IN-APP push notification, OTT chat, Social, voice and Email, I can’t help but think USSD is having its Mark Twain moment.


In 1897 Mark Twain – on reading of his obituary in the US press – sent home the presciently Twitter-esque Telegram stating, “[t]he reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Having recently moved to Europe, Twain had simply fallen off the US social map. In similar fashion, USSD for many seems to have fallen off the technology map.


As was the case with Twain, this is far from the truth. In fact USSD is going through something of a renaissance, a rebirth into the enterprise space, becoming a go-to tool to engage with customers, employers, and machines, particularly for time-sensitive, critical mobile interactions whereby access to a rich data channel is either limited or prohibitively expensive. This is bubbling up is from a collection of well-backed start-ups building innovative solutions for the fin-tech, aggri-tech, social, and online retail sectors.


Whilst much of the momentum is coming from the developing world, the crossover value for the developed world is clear to see. Here are some real-world examples of how USSD could compliment everyday life, regardless of where you’re from.


  1. Multi-factor Authentication: Anyone who has withdrawn cash from an ATM has experienced two-factor authentication. The first factor is something you have (such as a bank card) and the second factor is something you know (like your pin number). As our world becomes more digital transactions are migrating online, which means the “something you have” element is scarcer. This calls for deeper scrutiny. For many, the mobile device is seen as the natural replacement to the ATM card in this instance and a number of one-time password solutions via SMS and in-app push are in use today. However, they are have limitations: neither provide a clear two-way path to interact with the customer—SMS in particular by virtue of being store-and-forward mechanism opens itself up to man-in-the-middle attacks and can be easily spoofed for the purposes of phishing. As USSD is a session-based technology, it opens up a clear secure two-way channel of communication between bank and customer, whereby no information is stored on a third party platform—or indeed the device. Interestingly the authentication process can begin before any direct interaction has been made with the customer, principally as part of the session setup, the customers general location, (town/country) whether their SIM card has changed, and perhaps most importantly whether the mobile device is reachable can all be ascertained and fed into the bank’s authentication process, affording them the opportunity to adapt. The type of challenge, number of challenges, or even communications channel both in real-time and in a way that is frictionless for the customer.
  1. Customer Satisfaction Survey: Enterprises, particularly within the services sector, are looking to gain near real-time feedback relating to a service experience. Goods delivered, journeys taken, banking appointments made and other key performance indicators are all surveyed for customer satisfaction. In parallel, major brands are looking for smarter ways to gain direct easy-to-measure feedback relating to their products and services. For both, the mobile is seen as the go-to place for timely and accurate feedback from customers. To date, this has largely been via SMS, which becomes clunky when more than one or two questions are being replied to in a survey. The session-based nature of USSD enables an online customer survey experience for the customer, with simple navigation from a single screen, and the option to drop out of the process with a single click. As USSD is not tariffed like SMS or data for the subscriber, it means that the survey is free to the customer and therefore more likely to be responded to.
  1. Contact Centre Support/Service Disruption Management: Consider the experience of having spent hours in queues due to service disruptions, be they canceled flights, no internet access, service renewals or general complaint, only to then exchange the most basic of information to solve the problem in seconds. With USSD, whether it is initiated by the customer or by a service disruption, CRM, or contact centre, a customer can typically be authenticated, be notified of a problem and be presented a solution within a matter minutes if not seconds. Given call centre interaction costs run more than $1 per minute (USSD meanwhile is a tiny fraction of that) the basic operational savings alone make this advantageous, not to mention the customer satisfaction in swift resolution. Interestingly USSD is also the prefect complimentary channel for AI based solutions and support bots.
  1. Corporate Duty of Care: Increasingly, many organizations that send staff into specific countries or remote work locations deemed at-risk are requiring those employees to check in with staff. As with multi-factor authentication, knowing location and mobile coverage prior to a check-in request is invaluable. Similarly, the challenge response mechanism to ensure the correct person is checking in can be tailored in real-time based upon their location data.
  1. Remote monitoring, support and management (IoT): A number of IoT devices in areas such as air and water pollution monitoring, building, highways and rail management require devices be housed in difficult-to-reach, remote locations, where access to mobile data and power are typically scarce. This makes USSD the preferred channel for session-based uploads and downloads over data. USSD runs on the most basic signaling channel and consumes the minimum amount of device power.