Um, mm-hmm: Humanising voice technology

  • Sina Stieding
With the arrival and rapid evolution of digital assistants, many brands are turning their attention to the potential of voice. But those setting their sights just on adding to the rapidly growing list of Alexa Skills risk overlooking the bigger picture. This is because very soon, digital assistants will stop merely assisting and become valued digital companions – creating major opportunities for a more complex and intuitive array of voice services from brands.
Use of digital assistants and voice is growing, rapidly, as those attending the IPA’s Find Your Voice event heard on Tuesday 15th May. Some 22% of UK consumers now use voice assistants on either smartphone or smart speaker.[i] And by the end of this year it is predicted that 30% of all interaction with devices will be via voice.[ii]
For now, most interactions with digital assistants are simple and superficial; for example, setting an alarm or requesting a piece of music. However over the next few years, this will grow rapidly. And as tech users connect more devices, such as smart TVs, lightbulbs, and security systems, access to data will increase hand-in-hand with digital assistants’ understanding of our behaviour.
We believe the potential this creates for more connected, intuitive and meaningful voice-driven interactions and experiences is the next big opportunity brands.
For now, convenience is the main driver and this will remain important.
A digital assistant orders a new packet of a particular brand of dishwasher tablets when prompted by the user. However a digital companion will know which brand without being told, when that item was last ordered, and how much is left based on the number of dish-washes since the last purchase to ensure the item is replaced before being asked.
Already, 22% of voice assistant owners in the UK use them to shop with and their assistant of choice is Amazon Alexa - which is integrated with Amazon’s purchasing platform and underpinned by trust in the Amazon brand.
Moving forward, however, other drivers will emerge - especially the ‘humanness’ of any interaction.
73% of global smartphone users say they would use voice assistants all the time if they understood and spoke back as well as a human.[iii] This finding was underlined by the public response to Google’s recent demonstration of Google Duplex, where the assistant used humanlike utterances such as “hmm” and “umm” to schedule an appointment via a phone call. And it’s all down to ‘contingent interaction’, i.e. the responsive back and forth of talking to another person. The more contingent interaction there is, the greater the trust.
The evolution of digital assistant into digital companion will be wrapped in smarter purchasing, subscription models and fulfilment. To capitalise on this, brands will need to master some important new rules of engagement.
Firstly, they must decide what value they can offer to ensure their brand is on a user’s consideration list. This means deciding what a brand should stand for in its consumers’ space, how it needs to sound when interacting with users via voice, and how that should sit within its broader brand strategy.
Secondly, a brand owner must also understand who it is talking to and how best to interact with that audience in a way that is both unique and offers something of clear and tangible value to build the sustained relationship required for repeat purchase.
Thirdly, brand owners must keep things simple – guarding against creating friction or barriers to use by over-complicating either their proposition or interaction process. A brand owner should test in the voice space but, having decided to do so, be clear upfront about what it wants to learn from it, what it wants to achieve, and what success looks like.
Finally, brand owners must be willing to commit to expanding and upscaling their voice activity. While it is essential not to run before you can walk, it is also critical in today’s fast-moving and highly competitive marketplace to start small then scale, fast.
The development of increasingly humanlike voice interaction between user and device – as the two-way live conversation between Google and Alexa we set up for Tuesday’s IPA presentation demonstrated – is compelling and (in time) will further grow usage and trust. But to keep pace, brand owners will need to ensure they create deeper experiences that add real value.
With the age of the digital companion fast-approaching, the time for brands to start preparing is now.
David Coombs, Head of Strategic Services at Cheil UK, spoke at Find You Voice: How Brands Can Capitalise on Voice-based Interactions at the IPA on Tuesday 15th May 2018.
[i] Kantar Worldpanel [ii] Gartner [iii] J. Walter Thompson Intelligence