Voice Controlled Computing – New Opportunities and a Big Challenge

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Several times in the past this blog has discussed the work being done by large and small companies with deep pockets to usher in the age of voice-controlled computing. For the most part we have focused on the advantages consumers would realize from being able to leverage computing power with simple voice commands and the additional use cases connected devices would help satisfy as a result. As we continue to experience voice controlled devices weaving into our lives, two areas we haven’t discussed have started to come into focus – one an opportunity for insights and the other a challenge for product developers and barrier to widespread adoption.

Lessons from the Echo

We have written several times about the advantages tablet devices offer over voice controlled computers like the Amazon Echo, that offer no display, as the richness of the response is multiplied by a screen where information, imagery, and videos can be offered in addition to audio responses. The Ambility team still believes this to be a significant advantage, but we have learned a great lesson from the Echo that we didn’t fully anticipate – that a wealth of use cases can be addressed very well through audio-only responses, and that these audio-based interactions offer brand new areas of insight for service and marketing providers to learn about their audiences.

Another lesson we learned from interacting with Echo is that Siri and ‘OK Google’ are not really voice controlled computing platforms. They offer great doorways into web content end experiences, but once you get there you have to rely on tapping and swiping to get what you want.

New Use Cases, New Opportunities for Data

Over the course of a long weekend the Ambility leadership team found themselves turning to the Echo, by summoning ‘Alexa,’ more and more to satisfy simple queries and to help with tasks around the house. Our computers and mobile devices have long helped us settle debates by getting that easy answer, but how many of us turn to those devices to set a timer for the bread we’re baking or to dim the lights before dinner. With the Echo these were tasks easily completed, so by the end of the weekend we had forgotten where the light switches were and never cared to check for a timer in the kitchen.

Beyond those tasks we also turned to the Echo to play music, create a shopping list, and check traffic, but it was the mundane uses of the device to help with dinner and manage the room’s heat and lighting that stood out (Tom’s Guide also identified tuning your guitar and having Alexa act as your exercise coach as good uses of the product). These are tasks that for most people are not completed using connected devices, and therefore have been unobserved by marketers and analysts. As voice controlled devices increase in their application and penetration into modern households, the opportunity (and burden) of harnessing this new data for insights will be vast.

So overall the Ambility team liked the Echo and adopted its use for certain needs around the house quickly – to a degree that we don’t do with Siri or OK Google. Why is that?

The obvious answer is that Alexa was always available. We didn’t need to grab a phone or tablet, hold a button and then ask for what we wanted, we only had to hail ‘Alexa’ and then make a request. The not-so-obvious answer is that the Echo “interface” is built for an audio only interaction and does not default to older, tactile mechanisms of interactive experience.

Voice-Screen Interactions Require New UX Standards

Building “always on” capabilities is straight-forward enough (Siri allows it when your iPad is plugged in), but enabling audio only commands that interact with screen display is a far trickier change. Touch screen technology, historians tend to agree, was first developed in 1965 by E.A. Johnson at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern, UK, but it would be over forty years before mass audiences would have the chance to adopt them for anything other than highly specific interactions. Apple’s release of the iPhone in 2007 introduced intuitive standards of interaction that developers could then apply to web and application design.

Siri, OK Google, and Soundhound’s new Hound product continue to enhance the ability for our devices to recognize voice commands and provide base level responses. And now there’s even a program for making your laptop respond with J.A.R.V.I.S.-type displays like those Iron Man relies on, but for now all of these offerings assume some level of touch or mouse based interaction. For example, Siri and OK Google respond to most queries with a standard search results page (SRP) with no way to select a result by voice command. Siri’s voice controlled messaging functionality works well but correcting or editing a message can be frustrating unless you resort to tapping and typing.

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Big Challenge, Big Opportunity

The Amazon Echo so far has at least demonstrated that voice controlled interactions have some real usefulness and appeal. Even without a display screen the provision of always on audio computing is valuable. But the Echo hasn’t provided a way of navigating the rich and varied offerings the internet is so good at delivering. And a display screen would be a good start.

Tackling that interactive challenge is far more complicated than programming a voice-controlled timer, but the Echo showed us that intuitive, voice-controlled computing solutions will be a welcome addition to consumers’ connected worlds. And the payoff for the company that establishes those standards, the solutions designers who leverage them, and the analysts looking for more insights into their target audiences will be massive.

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Content Marketing and Persuasion Architecture

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This blog has included several postings dealing with the skills and team design needed to deliver “digital” well for brands. From the implications of immersive content platforms (Return of the Product Manager) and the different perspectives of millennial staff (The Native Advantage), we’ve thought a lot about what evolving digital platform and ad tech capabilities require from strategy and delivery teams. These organizational design considerations are essential to evolving marketing teams as our channels and customer behavior continue to evolve at a pace never before seen in history.

One thing that won’t ever change is the fundamental objective of marketing and communications teams across channels: to be persuasive about the products or services they are promoting. After we succeed in “interrupting” audience’s attention and attracting eyeballs (and/or ears), and have established the first hints of interest our messaging and experiences must aim to persuade that a service, product, or, yes, brand is worth creating a relationship with.

Persuasion Architecture

Years ago the concept of looking at brand/customer interactions as conversations intended to persuade was cleverly applied to online user experience design challenges as “persuasion architecture.” This took the form of developing website experiences in a non-hierarchical way, so instead of building a site from the top down, which too often mirrored the structure of an organization (company>brands>products & services>product) rather than the way customers explored their needs (search>search results>product) and the questions they were seeking to answer.

Practitioners of this approach, notably industry heavyweights Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg, designed experiences to provide answers to questions they would anticipate from customers and prospects exploring a product or service need. So if someone searched Google for “accounting software” and landed on a product page, the designers of that page would consider what questions a shopper would have when viewing the page and provide content or clear pathways to answer those questions. What operating systems does it work on? Is this for personal or business accounting needs? Can I handle invoicing, payments and receivables with the software? These are all examples of questions shoppers of accounting software would likely seek to answer.

Persuasion architecture thinking was and is a great way of delivering a site experience and identifying content needs in a user-centric way that leads a prospect along a clear pathway toward a transaction. In part the content marketing revolution reflects a broad recognition that brands have not done a great job historically of providing answers to questions through case studies, articles, and videos that show the benefits of products and services rather than just showing a picture or list of features and then offering an order button.

Shopping is not a Site Experience

But of course online audiences rarely feel constrained by the boundaries of an individual site domain and rather seek to interact with multiple online sources and platforms to continue their investigation and gather affirmation that a particular product is the right one for them, so persuasion architecture purely in the context of site development is an incomplete answer. This is where implications for how marketing teams may need to (again) evolve and organize themselves in order to be effective should be acknowledged.

Media as Part of the Journey, Not Just the Start

It can appear expedient to separate the thinking and people focused on online platform development from those focused on media messaging and distribution considering that the tools leveraged within those disciplines are very different. I know plenty of UX leads who neither know nor care to know what goes into an insertion order and plenty of media planners who lose consciousness when asked to review wireframes, but for the purposes of building a modern persuasion architecture the skills of both teams are required.

Improving cross-platform identification technology provides the landscape where the principles of persuasion architecture are going mobile… And social… And just about anywhere customers interact with the internet. Customer behavior has always been multi-channel and multi-platform. New tracking and data solutions capabilities are now allowing experience design (very broadly speaking) to be as well.

Facebook and Google do an effective job of tying together your cross-platform journeys, which is why that pair of pink pants you once looked at keep appearing in your feed, and data solutions providers like Neustar, Nielsen, and Merkle proclaim the ability to map customers to a broad database of online interactions with a high degree of accuracy. Retargeting shoppers with images and logos of the products they recently reviewed is just step one of applying that technology.

Content Sequencing

Emerging content marketing platforms like OneSpot (who list the aforementioned Eisenberg brothers as advisors) are starting to gain traction in demonstrating the value of looking at media as an extension of the consideration journey that good web platforms have always labored to deliver. Marketers now have the opportunity to continue answering questions they expect prospective customers have beyond their owned platforms. OneSpot calls this content sequencing, which is the notion of anticipating content browsers want to see based on online behavioral and demographic patterns, and serving that content up on different platforms and channels – wherever a browsers’ online journey takes them.

Right now Adam Weinroth, CMO of OneSpot, sees its platform as being most effective when their algorithm serves content to web browsers based on engagement patterns rather than how a brand would like to see customers explore their offerings. But the Ambililty team wonders if a potential source of revenue for OneSpot and companies like it could be brands looking expansively at persuasion architecture and where customers explore their options online. That, again, would require brands to unify (or, at least, align) their platform and media teams around the fundamentals of persuasion architecture.

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