Voice tech – will the innovation drive behaviour change?

Voice tech – will the innovation drive behaviour change?

Charlotte Stoel

Charlotte Stoel

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text el_class="text-content"]Anyone in the market for a smart nappy or Alexa-enabled toilet? The flurry of weird and wonderful tech news earlier this month can only mean one thing, CES. The consumer electronics show describes itself as ‘the global stage of innovation’, hosting businesses from around the world to show off their latest innovations.

Some of these wackier novelties as well as flagship products from the likes of Sony, LG, Whirlpool and GE, reveal a very important movement towards voice-enabled technology. Amazon’s Alexa featured in cookers and Google’s virtual assistant now works with more than 1,500 devices including speakers, headphones and television sets.

In fact, Google’s enthusiasm for its Assistant was unmissable for CES attendees with giant digital billboards up and down the Las Vegas strip (where CES is hosted) and adverts splashed all over the city’s monorail train carriages. It’s clear Google is looking to play catch-up to Amazon who currently leads the voice speaker market (by a fair bit, actually!). But Google is hot on Amazon’s heels, diversifying its offering and adding ‘smart displays’ so users of its Assistant can ask to see videos, images and do voice calls. Now, that’s an important move by Google, which I’ll come back to later.

Voice technology is new in the sense that we’re still in the experimental phase despite Alexa launching over four years ago. This feels like a long adoption phase, and prompts us to ask ourselves why isn’t it quite mainstream yet? Tech critics point to the fact that we can’t embrace it on a fully functional level because the technology is not capable of that yet.

What does that mean exactly?

It’s not the accuracy of speech recognition that’s holding voice technology back. Google’s speech recognition has a 95% word accuracy rate which is on par with humans. This may seem like a feat, but we hold machines to a higher standard than humans and are less forgiving of errors.

The main challenge is ‘speech diversity’. We have so many ways of having a conversation and framing a question. For example, you’re looking to turn your dining rooms lights on. Amazon Echo or Google Home would need to understand all (or a combination of) the following:

  • Dining room lights on
  • Please switch the dining room lights on
  • Switch on the lights in the dining room
  • Lights on in the dining room … etc

For a more complicated question, you can see how varied our use of natural language can be! It’s no wonder we’re still often getting “I’m sorry, I don’t understand that question”. And that’s part of the barrier for mass adoption.

Whilst many businesses are banking on the growth of voice technology for it to really take hold, we must answer the key question of whether we are truly addressing what the customer actually wants. At the moment, for the large majority the answer is ‘no’ because of the issue of speech diversity. When something becomes difficult, we stop trying.

So, who is adopting voice tech today?

There are pockets of consumers who are more forgiving, and voice technology is more convenient for them – that’s the young and the old. It’s quite the opposite to a lot of tech adoption which is commonly lapped up by 18 to 35-year-olds! Over Christmas, I was amazed when my nephew (who will turn two in Feb) picked up the iPad, open YouTube Kids, clicked on the microphone and said ‘aminals’; he’s not even perfected his speech but knows what he wants and YouTube’s voice technology understands what he wants. Meanwhile, older people and people with restricted eyesight have embraced the technology. A retirement home in San Diego conducted an experiment by giving its residents an Alexa and closely observing their use of the device. As it turned out, 75% of their residents used the device daily, listening to audiobooks and setting medication reminders. It also gave residents more of a sense of independence and no longer bothered others to switch the lights on and off or adjust the temperature in the room.

So, what’s going on with the generations in between? It’s back to convenience, lack of patience and lack of trust after trying and being disappointed.

This is where the addition of a screen to voice speakers (which I mentioned earlier) and the technology being built into devices becomes important and may finally tip the technology into mainstream usage. Most use cases of voice devices are for commands and trivia questions, but a screen and the integrations will open the use of the technology. For example, when asking how to fix something you can be presented with an instructional video or diagram. These devices are enablers of our usage and the advances in natural language technology will follow.

Ok Google, we’re ready for you!

Believe in this technology and want to get ahead as a marketer? Here’s another piece around optimising comms in the age of voice search.


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