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Listen up: Voice-Enabled Technology

Listen up: Voice-Enabled Technology
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This piece originally appeared on WhichPLM on January 15, 2018.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – which took place last week – is always a big deal. It’s where historic product and category launches – including the Xbox, HDTV, and driverless cars – were announced, and every year we get a glimpse into the latest technologies that will transform our lives and possibly even entertain us. Without a doubt, one of the key and most buzzworthy themes of last week’s event was voice-enabled hardware and software.

Likely you’re familiar with voice-enabled smart devices, and perhaps you’re even one of the 20 million people who have reportedly bought an Alexa-enabled device. In a nutshell, voice technology uses artificial intelligence to identify spoken keywords and commands, and with a web connection, can transmit this information and respond and act on your queries and requests. For context, Amazon presently owns roughly two-thirds of the market for smart speakers, and in 2017, the sales of smart speakers grew by a reported 300% over the previous year. Moreover, it’s estimated that by the end of 2018, 30% of our tech interactions will be voice-enabled. So this voice takeover is definitely happening, and it’s happening fast.

There’s an important distinction to be made between hardware and software as we discuss this topic. When it comes to the hardware, you have a few key choices – of course, there’s dominant Amazon’s Echo family of products, Apple’s upcoming HomePod, Google Home, and Harmon Kardon’s Invoke (Microsoft). Each device has a virtual assistant with whom the user interacts – Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana.

But there’s much more to where voice has to go that’s not about the hardware, but about the applications that link up to it (the software) that will finally push it to that tipping point in consumer and business adoption. For Alexa these are called skills, and for Google Home they’re called actions. Examples of brands linking up to these devices as skills/actions are Dominos Pizza ordering enablement or recipe searching with the Campbell’s Soup and Johnnie Walker spirits applications. But even for these early adopters, it’s still too soon to say as to where these types of voice-enabled capabilities will take us and whether these are the ones that will stick.

So, if you’re simultaneously enjoying the conveniences of being able to ask for an Uber, build a shopping list, or play your favorite playlist, yet in a business context struggling to understand where voice’s true potential lies, you’re not alone.

The Use Case That Will Tip The Scales

Google owns search, while Amazon owns e-commerce, and Apple hopes to attract the brand-loyal, device-focused customer; and while these hardware giants will continue to duke it out for their respective share of the device market, for the average brand or retailer, the hardware is the vessel – the means to the end consumer.

Still, beyond a giant like Amazon creating a device that powers the collection of an infathomable amount of data about us, driving purchases of the products it chooses to suggest, and generally becoming an integral part of our day-to-day activities and conversations, what’s the use case for those wishing to join the voice revolution? It’s tricky – the home has been a logical place for its early adoption – and the auto industry is quickly joining suit – but there’s much that we use, wear, and consume that isn’t yet smart. That’s the ‘wait and see’ part – and paying attention to, as one expert put it, “what the appropriate point of interface for voice is” – will inform brands and retailers as to where their opportunity for voice-enabled customer experiences lies. Right now the best bet is creating those skills/actions via existing hardware that enables you to test new ideas, gain user feedback and, hopefully, create additional resulting customer value.

Furthermore, there’s an aspect to voice technology that is exciting, as its future depends on some degree of cooperation between parties who haven’t always played nice. Alexa works with competitor Google’s calendar functions, apps like Spotify and Philips Lighting plug into both an Echo and a Google Home, and competitors Target and Walmart have both joined Google Home as part of its e-commerce services. And there’s going to be even more of these unlikely bedfellows as the technology continues to gain traction – because, as consumers whose behavior crosses competitor channels on a daily basis, we will drive the hardware giants to behave in manner that enables that very behavior seamlessly.

The Implications of Voice

Privacy is a topic that continues to bubble up, legitimately so, with a whole host of recent technologies – and voice is no exception. Exactly how much data is this device collecting and storing about me and my behaviors? Even in its early days there have been both funny and serious incidents that are creating new awareness around how when it works – it works really well. Just ask the little girl whose request of ”Can you play dollhouse with me and get me cookies?” resulted in the delivery of a $160 dollhouse and 4 pounds of cookies. But in more concerning contexts, there’s the fact that these devices are potentially vulnerable to hacking, as we saw a security expert do to a pre-2017 Echo model. When you consider that many link their home security to these devices, these concerns hit even closer to home, quite literally.

Indeed there are controls that users can mute to make sure things are captured and recorded only when they wish to do so. But with new technology it’s about the manufacturers being cognizant of, and responsive to, consumers’ concerns and hesitations. Designing and rigorously testing security features will ultimately assuage consumers who are hesitant to bring these types of devices into their lives.

A New Voice For Your Brand

Every brand worth its weight in marketers has a brand personality that is documented and manifests itself at every touchpoint – the product itself, advertisements, social media channels, and the list goes on. Yet, the idea that your brand actually is going to have a real, live voice to it, opens up a whole new line of discussion about what that looks, or rather sounds, like.

When we talk about search, how does the consumer locate your item? Experts argue that with voice search – there’s high risk of being left behind as shelf space may be limited to the top three items. So how will that be decided? Well, it’s already been proven that Amazon favors its own private labels when it comes to generic product searches. So while we wait for paid voice search channels to become the industry norm, it’s imperative that you be thinking about how people talk about your brand. We’re going to be moving into uncharted territories of branding when one of the key elements, visuals, takes a back seat, and you cede a high degree of control to the consumer’s hardware of choice.

Whether or not we’re quite there yet, it’s a discussion that should already be starting between teams spanning UX/UI, marketing, and customer insights and experience – in order to first begin outlining where the underlying and unmet customer need exists that voice can help to address. It may be early days, but in the observance of how customers are currently using voice technology in other non-related capacities is how you will begin to see where the opportunity to use voice may exist in the future.

So listen up (pun intended), and be prepared to identify and act upon the business use case that is going to bring voice to the masses and transform how you connect and sell to your consumers.

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