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Hey Alexa, play some music.
Ok, Google, turn on the lights.

Five years ago, these commands would have made no sense. But for the past two and a half years, voice-enabled speakers have steadily gained traction, introducing the world to voice-activated technologies. As we approach 2018, there’s no sign of slowing down the smart speaker revolution.

For as much as we use our smartwatches, phones, tablets, and laptops, we will soon begin using smart speakers with the same frequency. Already, more than 35 million Americans use a smart speaker at least once a month, and the global market for smart speakers is expected to grow to $2 billion by 2020, according to Gartner. Consumers expect brands to be a part of this revolution. To win on the customer battlefield in 2018 and beyond, brands must incorporate voice into their comprehensive digital strategies, and they must do it now.

You’d be mistaken to believe that voice-enabled technology will solely be for consumer device companies. In today’s world, every company is a digital company. Think of your bank, car, or local retailer. Nearly all traditional brick and mortar companies now have a digital presence — after all, as the saying goes, “there’s an app for that.” Web and mobile revolutions paved the way for digital transformations, and you can rest assured that smart speakers will be the next technology every major brand will need to leverage in order to reach their consumers.


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In fact, new research reveals consumers want to interact with brands in ways that are relevant to them and that leverage the unique opportunities of smart speaker platforms. Consumers are ready, but the technology is lagging behind. More than 70 percent of those surveyed experienced problems or frustrations with smart speakers, and 25 percent felt as though the speakers were not designed with their needs in mind. So what does this tell us about the ways in which we create voice-enabled experiences? And more importantly, for whom?

When our researchers asked about third-party integrations such as Amazon’s skills and Google’s actions, they found a staggering 63 percent reported problems and frustrations, often claiming the integration was too difficult to set up, or worse, did not understand them. With new technology comes a learning curve, but it’s only a matter of time before users turn to rightly blaming the developers for continued mishaps. Even more concerning, we learned that brands have one chance to nail their voice experiences — consumers told us they would not revisit a skill or action with which they had a bad first-time experience.

It’s a disheartening experience to feel unheard, but right now we are on the cusp of enriching the lives of millions through voice-enabled technology. Speech is the most natural interface of all, and tapping into these new technologies can open up a realm of possibilities allowing for untethered interaction. So, how can you deliver an exceptional voice experience in 2018? Start with these 5 best practices.

1. Fail gracefully

Just as in retail, the customer is always right. It’s never in your best interest to suggest that the user is at fault, so when interactions go awry, design for ways to be helpful, humble, and human. This includes being specific about what went wrong and asking clarifying questions to arrive at how the user can help resolve the issue. It also means knowing when to take a step back. If there is an error loop occurring, offer an apology and relieve the user from frustration and stress by pointing them in the direction of a website or mobile app that may help solve the problem.

2. Do your homework

A seamless experience is one that is inclusive and anticipates the needs of its users. Putting in the user research work early during the development cycle is key; by listening and learning from users early in the design process, the technology will better know how to respond to a variety of situations.

3. Be a good host

When you greet your dinner guests, do you immediately run through the night’s schedule and menu? No. And neither should your smart speaker. By and large, users just want to do what they came to do, which means skill developers should ensure they feel comfortable and set expectations at every decision point. This includes letting them know what they can do or say at decision points. In multi-step processes, letting users know where they are in the process is extremely helpful. Users should have no more, and certainly no less, information than they need at any given time.

4. Design for context and continuity

Voice technology should follow as natural a flow as possible. This means paying close attention to where the user may be — i.e. physically or in process of a task — and adjusting accordingly. Look for ways to combine, simplify, or remove tasks and constantly review commands, responses, and confirmations to ensure consistency. Communication should be natural and users shouldn’t have to learn a new language to communicate with the speaker or application.

5. Make the user feel heard

Confirmations and acknowledgments come in a variety of forms, and brands should design them with context in mind. It is extremely important to design speakers and applications to understand when they need to give explicit confirmation — “Did I hear you correctly?” as opposed to a simple “OK” acknowledgment. Similarly, the absence of nonverbal communication does not need to be a limitation: Using light and sounds can be helpful indicators for when tasks have been completed, or when the device is powering on/off.

Brands must incorporate voice into their digital strategies in 2018 in order to maximize and grow the engagement with their audiences. The easiest way to accomplish this is through empathy. When brands listen and learn, they design with the user in mind, allowing the technology to achieve great experiences that all brands will need to be successful in the coming smart speaker revolution.

Amy Buckner Chowdhry is the chief executive officer and cofounder of AnswerLab, a user experience research firm that provides insights to help clients improve engagement, reduce costs, and increase conversion.

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