Why voice and chat platforms are here to stay

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Posted by George Gabriel on 18 May, 2017

Whether it’s a news or recipe bot on Facebook, a chat-based tool like Google Assistant, or a standalone in-home assistant like Amazon Echo, voice and chat-based interfaces have gained unprecedented levels of popularity in the past twelve months. We’ve seen plenty of technology come and go over our twenty years in business, but we’re of the impression that voice and chat are without doubt here to stay.

The rise of voice in numbers

Voice-based interactions have been around for a number of years, but perhaps began to only really attract mainstream attention with Apple’s introduction of Siri in late 2011. It had been a rocky road since then, with many users questioning the reliability and viability of voice versus traditional input methods. Trends are changing though, with users taking notice of the fact that the technology has improved substantially. Siri today processes 2 billion voice searches every week, 1 in 5 (mobile) Google searches are now spoken, and more than 8 billion voice searches have been made through Windows 10’s Cortana assistant.

More recently, the rising popularity of voice has borne the creation of standalone devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. Much like the mobile voice tools, these devices can provide information, control smart home features, set reminders and appointments, and even purchase goods directly from the web. It’s expected that these two devices from Amazon and Google will amass more than 24 million sales in 2017, and that’s before possible entries into the market from Apple and Microsoft, who are already succeeding with voice on mobile and desktop.

It’s these trends that have led Gartner to estimate that 30% of web browsing sessions will take place without a screen by 2020, as a result of the increased adoption of this technology by current and future users. Just as it’s standard for the current digital generation to type a search query into Google, today’s kids are growing up in a world where it’s becoming perfectly normal to speak to your technology through voice or a messaging solution. ComScore predictions attempt to quantify this sentiment, indicating that we’ll be making 200 billion voice searches a month in 2020; creating an annual market worth almost £40 billion.

More than just messaging

Alongside voice, users are also now turning to chat-based interfaces to conduct tasks, which include services like the previously mentioned Google Assistant, WeChat, other standalone apps, and Facebook Messenger. After launching last April there are now more than 30,000 Messenger bots on Facebook, and the company just recently announced the arrival of a bot store as well. Dutch airline KLM uses Messenger to provide real-time support, while Quartz’s news app takes the form of an iMessage conversation that tells readers what they want to know.

The growing success of bots and chat assistants is a direct result of users’ comfort and confidence using messaging apps. The four big chat apps (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Viber) have larger mobile audiences than Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram’s mobile and desktop users combined. As an environment that is already familiar, fast, and easy-to use for users, it’s clear that messaging, alongside voice, is becoming a viable platform for brands to offer one-touch ordering and purchasing solutions in the future.

Echo: the biggest game-changer since the iPad

While we’re intrigued by all of the developments across voice and chat, it’s the Amazon Echo that excites us the most. Amazon certainly wasn’t first with voice; we’ve seen voice commands in software as early as 2006 on Windows Vista, alongside the more recent efforts from Apple and Google. But just like Apple proved with the iPod, you don’t need to be first to take the lead. Amazon has figured out how to intelligently put voice into a powerful in-home device, where the embarrassment of speaking to your technology in public has been removed.

It’s a strategy that’s worked, too. Recent research indicates that over 8 million people now own an Echo, three times higher than in January 2016, and an increase of 3 million from November 2016. It indicates just how popular a choice the Echo was with consumers last Christmas, and it’s now in the hands of more eager users than ever.

One of the biggest attractions of the Echo for both consumers and us as a technology provider, is its ability to support custom “skills” that are similar to third party mobile apps. Amazon has made writing these skills as easy as possible for our developers, who simply have to establish a custom set of voice commands and accompanying actions. Whether it’s ordering a Domino’s Pizza, asking when the next London bus is arriving, or starting a voice-guided workout, the possibilities of these skills are endless and will only enhance what the Echo is capable of over time.

Two thirds of Echo users primarily use it to make information requests, a clear indication that usage is service-driven and that customers value being able to gain information and execute tasks quickly. As a result, the number of available skills today has risen to 10,000, compared to just 1,000 in July 2015, enormous growth that displays just how seriously brands are taking voice as they seek a position on the platform. Just like the App Store, it’s not a trend that we see slowing down anytime soon, and believe the Echo has the potential to be the most revolutionary digital device since the introduction of the iPad in 2010. Unlike the iPad however, the Echo has far greater potential to learn about our in-home habits, searches, spending patterns and more, to further improve the user experience over time.

Capitalising on a significant shift in user experience

We think the advent of voice and chat is a significant point in the timeline of digital, representing the first big shift in user experience and behaviour since the smartphone. In-home voice tools and private chat-based solutions have removed much of the fear or embarrassment users have held about interacting with their devices in slightly unconventional ways. It has allowed the technology to develop accordingly, and now people are becoming comfortable using their voices to control devices with incredible speed and precision. It’s very quickly leading to a curiosity about what else they can do with voice or through chatbots, leading to increased demands and expectations about the services brands and businesses can offer.

We’ve seen plenty of platforms and devices come and go in our twenty years, but these two are here to stay. New technology like this of course presents huge opportunities, but does come with a fair number of threats too. Our experience has taught us that in order to minimise risk and make the most of those opportunities, you must gain a deep and comprehensive understanding of your users and their interactions with your business. Couple this with taking the time and care to offer solutions that remove friction, improve service, and enhance engagement, and you will be onto a winner.

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