THE AGE OF THE VOICE ASSISTANTS
By Haritha S, Assistant Professor, ISME
Key words: Voice Assistants, Alexa.
In the past few years there has been a significant rise in the use of Voice Assistants (VAs), this rise has resulted in several changes in terms of consumer experience, consumer behaviour, brand marketing, brand positioning etc. The penetration and adoption of digital voice assistants is increasing exponentially. Virtual Assistant (VA) is an application program that understands natural language voice commands and completes tasks for the user. A Voice Assistant (VA) has been defined as a digital assistant that uses voice recognition, speech synthesis and natural language processing (NLP) to provide a service through particular application. These voice assistants are also popularly known as Home Digital Voice Assistants (HDVA).These VAs or HDVAs perform various tasks like controlling smart devices, playing music, scheduling an appointment etc. Virtual assistants work based on artificial intelligence. A combination of different technologies is used in DVAs like voice recognition, voice analysis and language processing.
Digital voice assistants generally follow core steps –a) Speech to text b) Text to intent c) Intent to action. The software breaks down speech into recognizable parts called phonemes. A phoneme is considered to be a unit of sound, a phoneme does not have any meaning in itself however when phonemes are put together they make words. English language has only 44 phonemes. In case of words, which sound familiar like weight and wait, the software analyses the context to identify which is the best text match.
Drivers and Usage of Voice Assistants
A few reasons for the increasing use of voice assistants is the rapidity in providing search results than written search. Voice search is considered 4 times faster than written search. In India, the adoption of voice assistants is seemingly high. By the end of 2018 a 39%, penetration is expected in voice assistants. In USA where the adoption rate of voice assistants has been significantly high, many of the children have also started using the same. According to a PWC report of 2018, the adoption of voice assistants is the highest among young consumers, households with children. According to the PWC survey (2018), it is noticed that the purchase of smart home devices is influenced by their compatibility with their voice assistants, and vice versa.
Adoption of VAs by physically impaired people has been increasing steadily. People who are bound to wheel chairs, who are visually impaired are increasingly making use of voice assistants rather than depending on other people.
The above findings are in line with the findings of Accenture (2017) which mentioned that the use of HDVA has significantly has reduced the usage of smartphone for online shopping and entertainment like listening songs. Globally the most popular voice assistants are Alexa from Amazon, Google Home from Google, Siri from Apple and Cortana from Microsoft. Voice assistants are used for several tasks like setting the alarm, timers, controlling smart home devices, online searches, asking questions etc. Figure 1 gives a clear idea of the different tasks Amazon Echo is used for.
Figure 1, Source: Statista
Alexa is considered one of the most popular Voice assistants mainly because of the huge number of tasks i.e approximately 15000 tasks, which it can do. Siri is popular mainly because of its ability to understand 21 languages from 36 different countries. Among several VAs, Alexa has emerged as an undisputed leader in most of the surveys conducted across the world. A study was conducted by stonetemple (2018) to identify the smartest VA, about 4942 queries were tested on 5 devices, the study yielded the results as noticed in figure 2. One of the important observation from the study was that Siri falls behind in its ability to answer questions.
Implications of using Voice Assistants
As we have already noticed the adoption of VAs is higher among households with children, this raises concerns for the parents like; if it is harmful to see their children ordering machines to perform tasks, will they become complacent? Will interaction with parents and the ability to do things on their own reduce? In addition, will they be habituated to instant gratification? There has been a huge outcry from several groups like Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) urging parents not to buy Amazon Echo Dots Kids version. CCFC had previously urged Mattel to bring to halt the production of Aristotle, which is very similar to Amazon Echo. There have been instances where parents have expressed their concerns of their children becoming rude, as most of these Voice Assistants do not require them to be polite and follow the social niceties like “please” and “thank you”. Parents have suggested that child mode has to be enabled in the Voice Assistants, wherein the VA would not respond if certain words like please and thank you were not used.
Voice Assistants are driving more personalization. Profile switching in a mobile phone or laptop will take just a few steps , however if I were to ask about my meetings and if a colleague of mine asks the same question after sometime , my colleague would receive a different set of answers. The marketers will also be able to fetch more data based on the ability of the VA to distinguish voices from the same household; more insights can be gained into multiple users in a single household. VAs provide an interface of conversation that helps in better positioning of products, as conversations help the brands in understanding the consumers requirements completely. Brands will be able to understand consumer behaviour like never before. According to Dawar (2018), VAs will become the primary channel of information for consumers.
Challenges to the growth of VAs
One of the biggest challenge the voice assistants are facing is catering to different vernacular languages, accents etc. Even though companies are trying to develop voice assistants that cater to multiple languages, predominantly they all follow English. Many of the voice assistant users still do not trust them completely for voice assisted shopping and other financial transactions. The virtual assistants are evolving to understand the contexts of conversations; this is one of the biggest challenge of Virtual Assistants. Some of the reasons of consumers not trusting the VAs is unexpected voice recording and malicious voice commands, there are chances of impersonation, and the VA may not be able to differentiate the same.
Voice Assistants are here to stay and they are eventually going to penetrate many aspects of our life. However, the choice to use VAs constructively remains in the hands of the consumer. Companies involved in manufacturing of VAs can take into consideration the feedback of parents and design the products accordingly. VA manufacturers also need to work on many of the finer aspects of voice technology to increase the user acceptance and trust. Virtual Assistants are definitely going to pave the new way for marketing. With the technology companies trying to integrate the VAs with a vast variety of devices, the colonization of our homes by VAs cannot be stopped.
Dawar, N. (2018, May-June). Marketing in the age of Alexa. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/05/marketing-in-the-age-of-alexa