The mortgage game enters multimedia age

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WHAT'S the difference between a games arcade and a building society? Soon, the answer will be "not much". A multimedia computer system being tried by Nationwide is designed to be such fun to use that it is expected to attract new customers.

The Interact system initially is intended to offer more detailed information on mortgages, savings accounts, share dealing and other services than what is now provided in brochures - and customers will not have to make appointments or queue up to talk to a member of staff.

On the screen, the customer will see a 3-Dphotograph of the outside of the branch in Eastleigh, Hampshire, where the first three systems are operating as a pilot scheme.

Touching the doors on the screen changes the photographs to show the inside of the branch, and by touching the "desk" where they would conventionally be joining a queue, customers can get the same information as from a member of staff.

Customers "entering" the mortgage area, for example, can see a video on buying a home, including details of dealing with surveyors, solicitors and land searches. By entering details of income and how much they want to borrow, they can get an instant quote on monthly repayments.

If they want to talk to a member of staff they can touch the screen and be connected by videophone to an adviser at the Nationwide's headquarters in Swindon, Wiltshire. The system will also win sales by offering users the option to press the "apply now" button.

Quotes, applications forms and other information can be printed out, and at any stage users can go back to the previous screen or exit the system and go back to the high street.

Links to the rest of the Nationwide computer network will allow such information as interest rates to be updated while the system is in use. At present, Interact cannot be used to make balance inquiries.

The Eastleigh branch will continue to offer traditional counter services, and staff have adapted their sales technique to include the Interact system.

The Nationwide will judge the success of Interact by testing customer reaction and by the increase in business at the branch where it is installed.

The system is expected to be "a major draw", according to Rob Baldock of Andersen Consulting, which developed Interact. He said hundreds of people had tested it during development. "There wasn't a single bad word. People love the fact they are in control."

Mr Baldock said Andersen Consulting research showed many people were reserved about using human advisers because they did not want to show their ignorance of matters financial. By using Interact to get information they felt more in control and could approach a member of staff knowing what they wanted. "Interact is easy, fun and non-threatening," he said.

The Nationwide insists its aim in investing in Interact is to "heighten customer satisfaction". But the logic of getting a machine to perform functions carried out by humans is that the society will be able to reduce staff. And since the equipment could be installed anywhere - in a shop, a library, or a railway station concourse -, it may also help reduce the size of the branch network. There is a "hole-in-the-wall" model, and a home version is in early stages of development.

Mr Baldock said there was no prospect of multimedia information systems being integrated with cash dispensers because they were used by two different types of customer. Someone looking for information would be prepared to spend more time than someone wanting cash, and queues would build up.