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Aldous Huxley claimed that “most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” While Huxley wasn’t writing about voice-assisted devices, his understanding of our propensity to cheerlead new technology without fully acknowledging what we sacrifice perfectly captures the new world of voice interfaces ushered in by Amazon’s Echo and Google Home.
Huxley’s Brave New World centers on the trade-off between individual liberty and societal stability. Scientific advancement is valued in a world fueled by willful ignorance and collective complacency about what’s being left behind.
Although published in the early 1930s, his book raises questions that are still important. Considering the evolution of voice-based smart home devices, it’s worth asking: What exactly are we getting into here? With more voice-based smart devices in our homes, everything is up for redesign. Our expectations of privacy, the way we interact with businesses, and even the manners we teach our children may change. Do you say please or thank you to your smart home device?
But it’s not all dystopian. Popular home devices are reaching massive consumer deployment because they make our lives more convenient. Thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence, voice recognition software, natural language processing, and more, devices with voice interfaces can better understand human characteristics like tone, inflection, and context. For now, however, interactions with these devices are cumbersome compared to human interaction and the screen-based interaction these devices are set to cannibalize.
So what exactly are we poised to lose or gain with the popularization of smart home devices?
The stakes of smart home devices
Smart home devices will continue to earn more routine responsibilities and add to their value over time. One example — Google Home and Amazon Echo are set to resurrect “landlines” by blending the convenience of a home phone with the sophistication of voice-assisted search. All eyes are on what these devices will do to commerce. Certain aspects of traditional shopping are taken for granted, and the impact of their loss can more severe than confusing a voice assistant’s names with those of your kids.
Voice fingerprinting will follow the example of biometric touch identification. In the same way our fingerprint acts as purchasing permission on iOS devices, unique voice signatures will do the same for smart home devices. It’s likely human voices will eventually become our digital identities when interacting with businesses. Associated information attached to our acoustic identity will include details like payment methods, addresses, and more.
Price sensitivity is primed to take a backseat to convenience with the evolution of smart home devices. Consider Amazon’s Dash devices, which reorder common household items at the touch of a button.
Part of the appeal of opting for a screen-based transaction on Amazon over an in-store experience at Walmart, for example, has to do with information density and trust in reviews. Voice ordering via smart home devices removes common trust signals from the buyer’s journey. Companies that successfully navigate the competing interests of convenience and full disclosure will likely win the platform “trust” game.
Traditional mediums for B2C interaction
Many products and services require human-to-human interaction, and it’s yet to be seen how devices like Echo will facilitate these exchanges.
For instance, more consumers are opting to send messages to businesses instead of making a call. Facebook has responded by pushing businesses to adopt Messenger. Will voice-based platforms move toward an agnostic messaging medium like SMS, as they recently announced they’re doing with phone calls? If so, what roles will home devices play in these brand-consumer relationships?
Agnostic shopping platforms
Smart home devices may also encourage voice-assistant platforms to form strategic retail alliances. For example, Google lacks the inventory data and trust signals that Amazon has for purchasing. The search giant will need to integrate with an existing retailer that can give it both the data and fulfillment services required to benefit from voice-based ecommerce opportunities.
Only time will tell if these partnerships come in the form of mergers, acquisitions, deep inventory integrations, or what. It’s certainly a strange new world to think about Wal-Mart returning to retailing dominance with the help of Google, but it’s entirely possible.
Today’s brave new world mirrors yesterday’s
Until quite recently, every digital interaction with a consumer was screen-based. Users could choose how much information they took in, prioritize what mattered most to them, and make informed decisions. Updates to screen size as users moved from desktop to mobile also drove seismic shifts in consumer behavior, as well as strategies marketers used to reach them.
Companies tracking and basing decisions on consumer interaction data have thrived in changing technological times. For example, businesses already tracking voice interactions in the form of phone calls benefited from the shift from desktop to mobile because, after all, the screens in question are still phones. Those marketers who were prepared saw early returns, and they continue to see returns on their investments today.
Early days for voice interfaces
Voice interfaces, on the other hand, do not lend themselves to high information density. The tasks best suited for a voice search are simple, like asking Google to turn off your lights. Researching a new car or vacation destination via voice is not a simple interaction. A multitude of data points are necessary to make a major purchase decision, no matter the channel or device.
We don’t yet know exactly how voice interfaces will settle into our daily lives. What we do know is that they will. What does Google Home say when you ask it to make a phone call? “I cannot do that yet.” The possibility of a more voice-automated future is built into these devices’ very programming.
Businesses should eye the growing deployment of voice assistants with the same lens that helped them capitalize on the shift from desktop to mobile — by tracking as much as possible. From web activity to calls, SMS to inventory integrations, marketers must determine what drives results now and iterate strategies often.
Perhaps the best thing we all can do as new technologies unfold is to think about what makes human-to-human interaction still valuable — and decide how much of that we’re willing to cede to voice-based smart home devices.
Mark Sullivan is the director of demand generation at CallRail, a call-tracking service.
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