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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Tablet Sales Declining?

panic buttonTalk about the future of tablet computers these days and you can get a lot of skeptical looks – and no wonder. Recent articles with headlines like “Tablet sales plummet” (Seeking Alpha), “Tablet market slumps as buyers find alternatives” (The Star Online), “Tablets are toast” (The Register) all anticipate a slowdown in the adoption of tablets for business or home use. These arguments are indeed grounded in reports by Apple and Samsung that sales of their tablet devices are down year over year by 12.8% and 17.1% respectively. Those are big numbers that understandably have a lot of analysts and retailers reassessing their plans for investing money and shelf space in tablets. So what’s behind this year on year decrease in sales? It turns out a lot of factors are driving those numbers and digging into them reveals that tablets are far from “toast.”

Some of the slowdown in sales growth can be attributed to the fact that tablet users aren’t replacing these mobile devices as actively as they do their smartphones, so after massive rates of adoption since the introduction of the iPad five years ago a slowdown should have been anticipated. Considering that the features added with successive releases of the iPad have been limited in terms of hardware advances and you have an environment where users are not compelled to trade up to the latest model. “We continue to get feedback that tablet users are holding onto devices upwards of four years,” wrote analyst Ryan Reith of International Data Corporation (http://gadgets.ndtv.com/tablets/news/tablet-market-slumps-as-buyers-find-alternatives-idc-758976).

More instructive for companies actively developing apps and accessories for tablets are comments from Cathy Boyle, a senior analyst at eMarketer, who points out that “(t)he most limiting factor is the use case for a tablet: It is not as clear-cut or compelling as a communication tool—the core capability and use case for a smartphone.” (eMarketerWorldwide Internet and Mobile Users Q1 2015 Forecast) And Faisal Kawoosa, Lead Analyst at CMR, a leading Indian IT and Telecomms research and consulting firm, notes that “(u)nless the industry make substantial differentiation in the value proposition for potential customers, tablet shipments are not going to grow… With not much value addition coming in the shape of specific solutions to enhance device usability at the moment, tablets are only becoming devices of convenience, essentially larger screen versions of smartphones.” (http://www.cxotoday.com/story/will-tablet-pcs-become-redundant-soon/ October 5, 2015)

We will take up the topic of the place that tablets can occupy distinctly from smartphones and laptops or desktops in a subsequent post, but rather than concluding that the tablet use base globally will decline, as some of the headlines referenced above may lead you to conclude, the Ambility team remains confident in the continued growth of the tablet user base, and we’re not alone. Indeed, eMarketer forecasts that there is still “significant room for increased penetration. The number of tablet users will jump from 13.9% to 19.9% of the global population and from 32.2% to 38.7% of internet users between 2015 and 2019.” (eMarketer Worldwide Internet and Mobile Users Q1 2015 Forecast)

In the world’s most populous countries the forecast is even more buoyant: “Approximately 41.0% of people in China will use (tablets) this year. By 2017, half of the country’s population will do so. China’s burgeoning middle class will be the main force behind growth… Indonesia and India will post the fastest tablet user gains worldwide over the next few years. The number of tablet users in both countries will nearly double in size by 2019.”

Lack of Positive Externalities for the Tablet

The concept of externalities and their impact on products or networks is old and frequently brought up when a technology standards war is underway – such as the ’80s/’90s war between Apple Macs and Microsoft PCs, and now iOS and Android. An externality is the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. At Ambility, we are working hard to launch what we think is a positive external facilitator of tablet computing – an adjustable docking solution that fits beautifully into the home or office – and were struck by Cathy Boyle’s statement quoted above: “The most limiting factor is the use case for a tablet: It is not as clear-cut or compelling as a communication tool…”

We have long viewed tablets as extremely valuable devices for the home and office but recognize that hands-on or desktop usage only accommodates a subset of the overall use cases they are capable of effectively addressing. Yet the level of development for both apps and accessories for tablet-specific usage is limited compared to that for smartphones. According to Econsultancy 61% of companies report building apps specifically for iPads and 46% for Android tablets versus 86% of companies that are building for iPhones and 84% for Android phones. An Amazon search for “iphone accessories” yields 60,673,582 results while a search for “ipad accessories” returns 8,566,193 listings. Development for tablets is clearly of secondary importance, potentially leaving new solutions opportunities unaddressed.

The introduction of the iPad Pro and market adoption of the Microsoft Surface, however, show that the market is starting to appreciate the business related use cases for tablet computers. According to CXO Today Windows tablets are wooing the enterprise. In the Mobility Index Report published by Good Technology, Windows tablet adoption is reported to have increased 400%, from the last quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of this year. (http://www.cxotoday.com/story/are-tablet-pcs-failing-to-impress-business-users/)  This is largely driven by the business apps on offer through the Surface and its Microsoft Suite, and iPad apps are slowly catching up. Add enhanced positioning solutions and hands-free interaction capabilities like voice control and look for tablet sales to regain their momentum in the consumer space as well.

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In-Sourcing and the Value of Disruption – Part 2

Disruption

Part 1 of this post described some of the systemic attributes of a business landscape where technological change and the dynamics of the marketing agency world combine to create an environment of disruption. Part 1 also described some of the advantages brands should expect when they take their interactive activities in-house rather than working with agencies – particularly in the forms of internal ownership of the customer journey and responsibility for buyer behavioral insights.

Part 2 suggests the elements of the disruptive environment that are essential for internal digital teams to recognize and build into their own processes to ensure that the benefits of in-sourcing (or stable agency relationships) don’t come at the loss of the benefits of disruption.

Good Disruption, Necessary Disruption

Borrowing Georgia Congressman John Lewis’s “Good Trouble” directive, for digital professionals it is useful to recognize that certain types of disruption are good and necessary. While challenging, customer environmental disruption is a given. New hardware, software, and apps are put to use differently by empowered consumers and businesses everyday – well beyond the planned intent of the tools – with significant implications for marketing and service delivery groups (at least).

History has some big examples of products and services that were built with one use in mind only to be transformed by users who saw them satisfy other needs. Play-Doh was originally marketed as a wallpaper cleaner and Listerine a treatment for “sweaty feet, and soft corns, developing between the toes.”

More recently we’ve seen Google+ fail as a replacement social network and hub for all things Google but it seems likely that components will continue as customers demonstrate appreciation for their photo storing platform and its Hangouts for communications (http://www.wired.com/2015/03/google-knew-dead-google-still-social-network/). I have two clients who seem to meet only through the Hangouts, even with people in the same office, keeping them at their desks and minimizing ineffective time moving between rooms.

The Customer Is (Still) King

The disruptive environment often inherent in an agency client relationship is partly based on regular review cycles that bring new agencies into the mix, performing research and submitting new ideas for how to better connect with and serve customers.  Even incumbent agencies in the review process take a step back, reassess the marketplace, and eagerly search for new ways to delight and surprise.

The disruption your internal digital department needs most is not in changing personnel but in getting a renewed understanding of the target customers and their use of new and evolving tools. The environment is dynamic enough that every digital department should develop processes for regularly renewing their views and then openly brainstorming messaging and solutions to better serve their customers.

Operationalizing Creative Disruption

For every digital professional building platforms and campaigns nowadays it is essential to continually evaluate planning activities to understand how well they inform greater understanding of the customer and how the interactive environment that serves them has evolved. The inputs to answer these questions differ by sector as the digital environmental disruption is incredibly varied.

Salesforce is transforming how partnerships are marketed, created, and managed in the B2B space but has little impact in helping Starbucks sell coffee. The internet of things has already provided huge benefits to heavy industry but, so far, has had limited impact on retail customer interactions (expect that to change soon).

Developing your own map of the players and technologies impacting the online experience of your specific customers is essential and not likely something you can buy off the shelf. It has to be built into a regular planning process. Although the speed of change also varies from sector to sector, it’s hard to conceive of a marketplace whose interactive landscape isn’t disrupted at least once a year. Planning cycles should be scheduled accordingly.

Planning Disruption not Relationship Disruption

All in all, whether you work with outside agencies or not the interactive planning process must be disruptive – to your marketing, your interactive platforms, and yes, when necessary the skills and capabilities of your organization. Attention to the practices and behaviors of your customers will guide the way. Agencies can be a great way to augment capabilities and produce fresh insights and ideas, and their clients are better able to assess their agency and internal needs when they disrupt their own thinking about their customers.

Subsequent Ambility posts will further discuss disruption in its many forms – the operational implications of technological disruption to platform and campaign managers, how agencies are and need to continue evolving to sustain the value they offer to their clients and their stakeholders, and the essential skillsets necessary in leaders and teams to keep digital planning activities relevant, just to name a few.

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In-Sourcing and the Value of Disruption – Part 1

Disruption

The recent move by Krispy Kreme to take their digital marketing in house (http://www.adweek.com/agencyspy/krispy-kreme-takes-all-its-marketing-in-house/88633) continues a long-standing debate about the relative value of in-house versus agency resources for these essential services. In considering this question, a statement by Krispy Kreme about their decision stood out to me as worthy of examination: “Krispy Kreme engaged VML last year to do strategic and foundational work in the areas of digital and social media.  We think that those efforts have set us up for success going forward. As such, we plan to manage digital and social media using in-house resources at this time.”

I expect that statement is half right. VML does great work and Krispy Kreme clearly has a strong strategic platform to work from to deliver digital and social media programs in the short term that will help them drive business. But how much a foundation of success they have “going forward” is an open question, and one that is important for every modern marketer to answer.

Krispy Kreme’s particular situation is simply one of many companies choosing to take critical marketing and communications functions in-house. It’s useful to consider the advantages and risks of such a decision and to, hopefully, identify ways to maximize the advantages and mitigate the anticipated risks.

The Pros

The advantages of taking ownership of digital tasks in-house should be clear. Beyond the (often exaggerated) economies, the key advantage of bringing digital responsibilities in-house is that the ownership and accountability of these critical mechanisms for delivering customer service and marketing messaging are clear, and metrics of success explicitly spelled out. This focuses internal digital marketing and operations teams and provides the avenue for developing real knowledge and empathy with their target customers – a fundamental ingredient of great work.

The Cons

On the flip side, retaining an outside team for key digital responsibilities also has some obvious advantages in the highly dynamic online environment. As the most critical interactive skills have evolved from experience design to media planning to search to content marketing to programmatic, corporate marketing departments have easily switched among agencies whose capabilities better matched the challenges of the day (to the dismay and occasional demise of less nimble agencies). The minimal agency switching costs and hyper-competitive nature of the interactive agency world allows corporate digital departments to adjust to fluid demands in interactive capabilities more easily than they might be able to with embedded resources.

In short, for various reasons the interactive world has been one of constant disruption since its inception. While the environment has been demanding for modern interactive teams, the one clear beneficiary has been the customer. Websites are more intuitive and visual than they were, search gets better and better at connecting customers with relevant offerings, and content (of all forms) has become richer and more effective at telling brand, product, and service stories in ways that are meaningful.

The strategic work we do at Ambility aims to help insourced and outsourced teams focus on high-impact solutions and manage operational risk. We’ve worked with our corporate clients to evolve platform offerings and campaigns to better connect with customer expectations, and we’ve helped agencies adjust their capabilities to better match client needs.

In each case the driving inputs are insights which help us understand how technology and social factors are impacting customer behavior. Understanding how customer behavior is evolving then allows us to better understand what is working, and to uncover new opportunities for brands to stand out from the competition. But each time we recognize that the delivery provides a solution for the current environment – an environment that continues to evolve and be disrupted.

Increasingly we work to organize teams around customers in order to be better at identifying changes when they happen, and to better understand capabilities gaps that need to be filled. Where this post sought to outline advantages and disadvantages of doing this in an insourced world, the next post will provide thinking for how to operationalize disruption within an organization.

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