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Nearly every aspiring brand is looking to build and monetize long-term, sticky relationships with customers. In 2022, however, competing for their attention can feel like a daunting, almost insurmountable task. As demand has increased for decreasingly available attention, some desperate tactics have emerged: Hong Kong redesigning its traffic lights to try to catch the attention of pedestrians who are staring at their phones; or an increasing number of brands relying on “dark patterns” in an attempt to access more data and secure more eyeballs.

The good news is, there’s a simpler way emerging to productively engage with an increasingly distracted populace. More than a quarter (27%) of the global online population is using the voice search feature on their mobile devices, and 500 million people use Siri every day. High-quality voice experiences are a particularly promising medium for engaging with consumers in a meaningful, responsive and consistent way, where the value exchange between brand and customer is re-balanced.

We’ve learned — by necessity — how to use our fingers to do the talking. Now a much more intuitive and natural form of communication, voice experiences, allows people to do things they already need and want to do — but with the ease and simplicity of talking to a friend. 

Direct, immediate bridges

For brands, voice experiences can create a direct and immediate bridge between consumer needs and a brand’s products and services, without friction. It’s this speed of access that’s already changing consumer behaviors today. Erica, the virtual assistant that Bank of America brought to market in 2018, has been used over one billion times by customers wanting information about transactions, refunds and charges.

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Voice experiences also allow brands to engage with consumers when screens are cumbersome (that is, while cooking, driving or running on a treadmill), or even when multitasking (such as while going for a walk or listening to a podcast). Today’s leading brands are already recognizing commerce’s shift from screens to voice, and are moving first to maintain and grow market share in this new channel. Juniper Research forecasts that the value of ecommerce transaction via voice assistants will top $19.4 billion in 2023. 

We’ve seen the likes of SONOS, Disney, Samsung and Bank of America take leading positions in the evolution of branded voice services. And as Wikipedia project sponsor Wikimedia Foundation has said: “When a virtual voice assistant answers a question using Wikimedia knowledge, people don’t always know where the information comes from.” That’s the justification for its effort to design a new sound logo that identifies Wikimedia content, and it’s a testament to increasing market demand for voice. The number of users of voice assistants multiplied from 544.1 million in 2015 to 2.6 billion in 2021, the foundation says.

Designing new journeys from the ground up

To unlock the value that voice can provide, brands must design branded voice experiences that are truly additive to their users’ daily lives. As studies have shown, “A 20% increase in simplicity results in a 96% increase in customer loyalty. It can result in consumers being 86% more likely to purchase brands and 115% more likely to recommend those brands to others.”

However, it’s not enough to simply add generic voice commands on top of existing screen-based experiences while continuing to drive attention and interaction to screens to execute the final command. Nor is this a matter of moving everything inside an app to voice. To win customer loyalty and maintain brand trust, entirely new journeys must be designed from the ground up — journeys that are optimized for their context of use and, often, that move seamlessly between voice and visual interfaces.

So what should brands keep in mind when setting out to build impactful voice experiences for the first time? Here are five best practices we’ve come back to time and again:

Prioritize simple use cases

The reduction of cognitive load is what gives consumers a sense of relief when using voice technology, and that simple sense of relief is what fundamentally makes voice experiences so valuable. Instead of investing in complex, multi-turn use cases that sound impressive, prioritize implementing simple use cases that allow you to deliver a voice experience that will reduce time-to-value for users and make consumers’ lives easier. Single-minded, simpler use cases are easier to learn and increase the likelihood of meeting users’ expectations.

Quality is everything

One of the most common complaints about voice experiences isn’t the lack of complex, advanced interactions, but rather the frequency of misunderstanding of requests. Tolerance for latency is wafer-thin. This means ensuring that every connection point in the voice assistant — from device connection to automatic speech recognition (ASR) and natural language processing (NLP) (that is, reliably parsing, tagging and delivering meaning from utterances) — is successfully being delivered before moving on to anything more advanced.

Be mindful of when voice is the most efficient experience (and when it’s not)

While a branded voice assistant can be viewed through the same lens as a branded app — as a container of use cases that are tethered to a brand and separated from others — creating a voice assistant is not a matter of replicating an existing app’s functionality via audio channels. We’ve already learned that good apps don’t simply replicate good websites, and the same logic holds true in the move from apps to voice assistants.

When consumers know and can articulate what they want, voice can work beautifully to fulfill their needs easily and quickly. For many interactions, including when consumers are unsure precisely what they want or where the range of decisions is complex, screens will likely remain optimal. And as more and more visual interfaces are embedded in our lives (and virtual lives), voice will increasingly complement these rich visual experiences as part of the same product or service experience.

Build continuity across a variety of devices

To create a seamless voice experience, you must understand the variety of devices that consumers are accessing throughout the day, then orchestrate an experience across those devices. For example, a user may want to order a pair of sneakers in the morning while in their kitchen via their smart speakers, and then check in on their order during their evening commute via smart earbuds, so your voice experience needs to support that. Furthermore, interaction patterns, audio cues, language and tone should be consistent to build familiarity and trust with your brand over time. 

Own your brand experience

Just as apps and websites have become central materializations of a brand’s personality and what the brand stands for, voice experiences can and should evolve to be the same. From your use case to wake work, voice, content and performance, every element must be considered and combined to create the brand experience your customers will enjoy. Creating a direct relationship with consumers through a branded voice assistant is the most effective way to own your brand and capture the signals from customers to rapidly improve your service experience.

Enabling a ‘head-up’ culture

Designing a voice-based multimedia user experience from the ground up can feel like an overwhelming undertaking. Brands should remember that the best voice experiences simply address existing user needs and make them markedly faster and easier to meet. The goal is not to inundate consumers with novel technology they only use once. Rather, the goal is to build everyday usage and monetize relationships with consumers in those places where voice can make their lives easier. If we do, the hope is that we can avoid redesigning our cities for distracted citizens and instead enable a “head-up” future where everyone is just a little bit more present.

John Goscha is the founder and CEO of Native Voice.

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