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Artificial intelligence—including automated virtual assistants (VAs)—is a hot topic for brands. The market for VAs is projected to grow more than six times, to $23 billion by 2027, accelerated by a COVID-19-era desire to serve customer needs remotely and at scale. From Alexa to Slackbot to Capital One’s Eno to Domino’s Dom, lately it seems like every brand has its own VA.
There’s a wide variety in how brands are approaching the design of VA experiences today, and there seems special interest in the highly humanlike ones—VAs that aim for the appearance and behavior of the real humans who previously fielded these inquiries. But that’s where brands potentially misstep. Instead, they could strive for a VA that’s more than human.
Beyond the humanlike
Let’s say your brand decides to create a VA for your customer service experience. You know that brands benefit when customers feel less like they’re interacting with an institution and more like they’re interacting with a trustworthy human. You know that big data and AI can feel intimidating and impersonal. You figure that putting a human face on an algorithm can make it feel more comfortable, natural, intuitive.
After all, customers are used to talking to humans in assistant roles—it would be easy to think that customers would want to preserve as much of that experience as possible, regardless of whether the intelligence on the other end of the line is human or artificial. It could follow that replacing the human with the artificial is best done with an artificial human likeness.
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So, you give the VA a recognizably human name, personal pronouns (probably she/her), describe the VA thinking/feeling/acting humanlike—from “She’s your advocate, always looking for ways to help” to “She’s your friend, ready with a joke to cheer you up.” You design the VA to have a voice that sounds friendly, agentic—she introduces herself by name, uses familiar vernacular, tells jokes, dishes banter. You give her a human face.
But this approach comes with baggage.
For one thing, it sets expectations, which can (and very well may) lead to customer disappointment (customers aren’t really interacting with a human, after all). At worst, it can lead to perceptions of deception.
What’s more, while we may find human interaction comfortable in the abstract, we also know that we humans carry preconceived notions, stereotypes and past experiences into each social interaction. These biases introduce deeply complex risks to the choice of a human form (let alone a name, voice, and vocabulary) for your brand’s VA—and may even inadvertently reinforce these biases.
The advantages of being non-human
Rather than aiming to achieve the hallmarks of a human interaction, there’s room to lean into the advantages of actually being non-human. Instead of replacing the human assistant—with all the weight of biases, expectations and functional capabilities that might come with that territory—what if we focused on what VAs bring to the table that is additive and complementary to the human aspects of the service experience? On emphasizing that this is something different—something that can provide immediate convenience, inspire tech-forward confidence, actually be everywhere at once?
What if we strove for a VA that’s more than human?
We see some exciting examples of this in the market today. RBC Royal Bank’s NOMI is named and described as a distinct entity that customers can point to, but NOMI operates mostly in the background, tied to multiple intelligent tools woven throughout the mobile banking experience. NOMI brings insights to the customer’s fingertips in a concrete way without a concrete form factor. The effect is a seamless interface that lends an air of unmistakable digital prowess to a trusted financial services brand.
Domino’s Dom takes a pluckier approach to more than human consistent with the brand’s personality. Dom’s appearance hints at human while embracing chatbot, with its hat-wearing chat-bubble form and personable voice, within an interactive messaging screen that responds to clicks and pizza emojis alike. Dom achieves friendliness while feeling more dynamic than merely human—with scale and convenience that makes ordering a pie feel more immediate than ever.
Apple’s Siri takes on an amorphous form of just color and movement patterns (along with the voice, which Apple adapted due to representation concerns of the very kind discussed above). The form flexes easily from phone to watch to car to laptop, all while maintaining the sense that the customers interact directly with the same Siri at each touchpoint. Siri also references having a life of its own: when asked what Siri did today, Siri might describe telling other people stories as they cozy up to the fire during a cold night—emphasizing too, its scale of reach. With warm and whimsical touches of familiar humanity, Apple augments the mysterious appeal of an abstract form factor that allows for a cohesive experience across an entire ecosystem.
A high-tech differentiator
Analytic power immediately available at customers’ fingertips, distinct cool-factor surprises of digital prowess, sheer scale of simultaneous customer interactions—these feats aren’t possible for a human. Rather than set expectations for humanlike interactions, successful VAs can lean into being a high-tech differentiator and complement to the high-touch, human elements of the brand experience.
So, when deciding how to represent your brand’s VA, ask yourself:
- What need is the VA addressing? What progress must the VA enable customers to make in their lives? How should it change how customers feel about your brand?
- How much spotlight—if any—should the VA get? Who or what do you want to get “credit” for the AI capabilities—a prominent VA or your overall brand?
- How does the VA complement—and uniquely add to—the service experience? Which form of representation puts the underlying technology in its best light to elevate and enhance all other aspects of the experience—including any handoffs to human customer service reps?
- Does this representation flex cohesively across the entire experience? Will a given representation present coherently across every possible touchpoint where customers might encounter the VA—now and in the future?
These answers will point toward how you can best leverage your brand’s technological capabilities as a powerful component of your brand. Done well, a VA experience will allow your customers the sense that they’re able to do things they couldn’t before and relate to your brand in ways they couldn’t have imagined otherwise—most likely by leaning into the advantages of being more than human.
Hailey Scherer is a senior consultant in innovation strategy at Lippincott
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