Here are 3 limitations of USSD that you should know
If you have read a couple of our articles here, you probably already know we love USSD. It is amazing for a number of reasons: low cost, easy to use (for most people), and doesn’t require the internet to function.
However, as with any other technology protocol, USSD has its own drawbacks. In this article, we will be taking a look at some of the most notorious limitations of USSD:
While USSD is useful and simple enough for most people, for the nearly 1.3 billion people who struggle with disabilities or illiteracy across the world, it is a chore.
Take, for instance, someone who uses a screen reader. Such a person would have difficulties using USSD because the menus are read as one long run-on sentence, and therefore, incoherent. Navigating the menu takes so much care that the user may end up running out of time during the session. Since users are usually billed per session, they still have to pay a fee whether or not they completed the transaction, resulting in dual frustration.
For a much clearer understanding, watch this video of a screen reader user explaining how to make a transaction to others:
Other accessibility issues include the lack of contrast between the “send” and “cancel” buttons which can be confusing for visually-impaired people.
Stax fixes these issues by creating a mobile app that is compatible with most screen readers. The app collects your information using an easily readable user interface with sufficient distinction between options. The session also doesn’t timeout as readily as traditional USSD does because it doesn’t start until you’re done inputting all your details.
Perhaps the most significant drawback of USSD access is that it relies on the monopoly power of telecommunication companies (Telcos) to function. This is a challenge that everyone who tries to offer a service through USSD comes to face eventually.
While licensing and access requirements differ from country to country, the one commonality is that at some point during the process, you have to go to telcos and ask to use their infrastructure. Everyone who has gone down that route knows that the conversation can be an arduous one.
This challenge was part of what led to the current iteration of Stax that we have today. After several failed conversations with Telcos, we decided to build without them. Today, Stax can connect to any service available over USSD without needing to integrate with telcos, banks, or any other 3rd-party.
However, this monopoly is not just a problem for service providers who want to reach users over USSD, but also for users themselves. Telcos, for instance, can form a union to set flat market costs for USSD access, effectively blocking out the competition and harming end users. That kind of power can cause a disregard for the needs of end-users. A good example of the harmful effects of monopoly power can be seen in the Nigerian Banks vs Telcos dispute that lingered from 2019 to 2021. The dispute which was started over the failure of banks to pay their debt for use of telcos USSD infrastructure quickly spiraled into threats of “withdrawing services from financial institutions” —a move that would have effectively left millions of users stranded.
Like every other protocol, USSD has security limitations. While it is still one of the safest ways to transact, it comes with its own challenges. The most common security issues with USSD are user lapses e.g. giving your password/pin code out, losing your SIM card, etc. If any of those two get into the hands of unscrupulous characters, they can fraudulently access the user’s accounts.
The good thing about Stax, however, is that Stax is not linked to users’ SIM cards, so external actors cannot use it to access their accounts. In addition, Stax doesn’t store the Personal Identifiable Information (PII) of its users. So, even if a user lost their phones alongside their sim cards, bad actors wouldn’t be able to use the phones for fraudulent transactions.
There are also USSD risks that are not necessarily user-generated but are a result of infrastructure failures. These risks leave users open to various kinds of attacks including man-in-the-middle attacks.
The unfortunate thing is that there isn’t a lot that you can do from the user-end to secure yourself from these attacks. However, on the bright side, Telcos are typically aware of these kinds of attacks and are working tirelessly to plug the flaws.
Like every other technology, USSD is fraught with challenges. On one side, this means users will eventually run into one of these problems which might affect their experience. On the other hand, it also means there's a lot of room for innovators to build and provide solutions for the over 1 billion people that rely on USSD.