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The rise of voice control over our devices relies of a number of basic human traits: our love of convenience, a demand for immediacy, and the wish to minimize the number of physical actions we have to take to ensure our needs are met. It’s so much easier to say ‘turn on the lights’ than it is to reach for our mobile device, open the relevant app and trigger the lights to go on. Let alone doing the job manually.
All compelling reasons why voice should be heading for market domination. Except this isn’t the case.
Voice control is still secondary to touch or app control on many of the devices we use the most. Voice has been available on smart phones for years, but touch is still the dominant interface.
Even with smart speakers, where voice is the interface, owners are only using these for a few basic tasks: playing music, searching for information, and checking the news or weather.
The steep growth in volume sales seen over the last 3 years looks set to level out in 2019; but Prime Day and similar events may well give a boost to the year-end figures. *Moving Annual Total (the 12 months up to this date).
We’re seeing far higher numbers still looking to their smartphones to control the lights or other devices in their home, rather than their smart speakers or voice-activated home hub:
In the Netherlands, 31% say they’re interested in controlling devices via voice – but, if given a choice of interfaces, 61% prefer to use their smartphone or tablet.
And in the UK, the numbers using their smart speaker or home hub to control their entertainment, lighting and security is half the size of those using their smartphone:
There are three practical reasons why. The first is the requirement for an optimal environment: The device needs quiet surroundings to hear the command properly. And many people want a degree of privacy – both for security in speaking passwords or searching sensitive topics, but also simply so we don’t feel conspicuous talking to our devices in public.
The second is technical. Voice AI is best suited to simple instructions, or questions that have one straightforward answer. It is less convenient when we want to give complex instructions, such as setting up and triggering precise lighting settings, or when the answer is subjective (“What’s the best place for a romantic meal near me?”). And, too often, setting up multiple users on voice-controlled devices, or setting voice-controlled devices to control other smart devices around the home is a challenge. So we self-limit our use.
And the third is human. We become used to doing things a certain way and it can take time and enlightenment to change that.
China provides an interesting case study for this. In line with their trend of leading the world in their take-up of new consumer tech goods, Chinese consumers are more adventurous than their European counterparts in their attitudes and use of voice, such as using their smart speakers to read bedtime stories to their children, or to do shopping:
Source: GfK Future Buy 2018
The good news, for those looking to sell into the European markets, is that it is not a closed door. Even in Germany, famous for its focus on data privacy (and arguably cautious about online shopping methods), nearly 1 in 5 say they are open to the idea of shopping via voice. What brands and retailers need to target – and not just in Germany – is the low perception of shopping via voice being convenient.
What we’re seeing is consumers not really “feeling” the value of voice control. Our instinct is still to turn to our mobile phones to control the smart devices in our homes, rather than our smart speaker or home hub.
But certain segments look ripe for driving change. Younger consumers are already using voice more often – and not just for the basic tasks.
Taking our UK data as an example: 53% of 16-24 year olds tell us that they use their smart speaker ‘a lot’ to search for information, compared to 43% of 25-34 year olds and 45% of 35-44. And 85% of 16-24 year olds said the same for playing music – at least nine percentage points higher than any other age band.
In the Netherlands too, 35% of those under 35 say they are using their smart speaker multiple times a day, compared to 30% across all ages.
Adding to this is that younger people ‘over index’ on being open to the idea of shopping by voice – and yet, half of 16-24 year olds and 41% of 25-34 year olds in the UK say they’ve never ordered or bought a product using their smart speaker. The interest is there, but they are currently lacking the trigger to turn interest into action.
Brands and retailers need to drive this by promoting the more imaginative areas where voice interaction can add fun, convenience or speed to daily experiences. The key barrier that brands must overcome is making it quick and easy to connect voice-activated devices with the other devices in our lives.
Voice will certainly be a growing part of our future. But – when you get down to it - consumers don’t really care about one specific interface over another. They simply choose the interaction that they perceive as easiest at that moment, that also delivers their required result in the most convenient and satisfying way.
The winning solutions will therefore be those that combine interfaces. Just as human-human communication is a mix of verbal and non-verbal, so human-device interaction will only deliver the enriched experience that consumers want when it intelligently and seamlessly combines verbal and non-verbal instruction – and delivers the results in the most intelligent way for that situation or type of information.
We’re already seeing technology starting to broaden its focus from just voice optimization to include areas such as facial recognition and understanding context.
The opportunity for voice lies in brands not focusing on it alone, or even as a leading option. What consumers want is for all interface options to be seamlessly integrated in any device and across devices, so that the human-machine interaction intelligently flexes to suit any individual or environment.
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