Voice – the quiet revolution that’s going to make a big bang

This week, JOY's Technology and Content Partner, Aaron Michie joins us as guest contributor.

With digital, then mobile, we regularly got flooded with headlines proclaiming that this year would definitely, absolutely, be ‘the year of digital/mobile’. But ‘the year’ never really happened. There wasn’t a real big bang and things just kept slowly moving onwards, with digital and mobile becoming almost all pervasive, but somehow still not primary for lots of brands.

I get the feeling something rather different is going to happen with voice.

True, there’s a lot of hype, but it seems to be somehow more distant and doesn’t yet appear to be translating into the prophetic headlines or urgent requests from brands for “voice ideas” the same way mobile did. Which is really odd, as there is a massive, rapid shift going on in the homes and pockets of consumers around the world. And it’s a shift that could well create a genuine tipping point that suddenly makes voice the norm, unlike the slow slide we saw with digital/mobile.

The key differences I see are hardware and behavioural.

Firstly, with digital/mobile, the key driver was access to a device. First PCs, then mobiles and tablets. People needed to have a digital ‘thing’ in order to get on board. This slowed adoption in some sectors and allowed marketers to drag their feet. With voice, the dynamic is quite different. We are already over saturated with devices capable of handling the tech (mobiles) and sales of dedicated voice-controlled devices (smart speakers primarily) are quickly ramping, (an estimated 12% of all Australian households will have a smart speaker by 2020. Telsyte). The hardware basis for voice is, partially, already in place, and what’s missing will soon be part of the next toaster, toilet or thermostat we buy.

Secondly, going digital/mobile meant a real shift in behaviour. It sounds funny to say now, but there was a real learning curve for many people in getting used to digital devices and interfaces. And, once they’d mastered the devices, there was another step to understand the technology’s capabilities and the new products and services it spawned. Sure, touch interfaces have made things more intuitive, but if you think about it, it’s been quite a leap for us to go from the way we interact with each other, to expecting that moving our fingers about on chuck of glass and metal should be able to summon a car or dinner.

Again, for voice, the hard work has already been done. We’re used to technology being able to do almost everything for us and, as opposed to having to learn a bunch of buttons and gestures, voice has been one of our primary interfaces with the world for millennia. Rather than being another learning curve, the behavioural shift to voice is going to feel like a natural step for most of us and there are already some wild stats being thrown around about this, like Gartner’s projection that 30% of all web browsing will be without a screen by 2020.

So, with the hardware and behavioural barriers being nothing like those faced by the first waves of digital/mobile, why are we still talking hyping voice rather than executing it? I believe that’s due to two things: accuracy and social norms.

Accuracy is about how good voice AI’s are at recognising what the hell we want them to do, and their ability to deliver against those requests. You don’t have to search far to find lists of hilarious, and often disturbing, voice command fails. But, that barrier is rapidly disappearing with accuracy climbing above 95%, which is putting it close to human levels of understanding.

The social norm barrier i.e. the fact that most of use still feel awkward talking to inanimate objects in public, (especially ones that don’t get what we want), may take a little longer to get over, but again it’s changing fast. In more private settings, such as at home or in the car, the barrier is not there, and as people get used to the hands and eyes free convenience in those space, the behaviour will seep out and become more accepted in public settings.

I don’t think either of these barriers will put significant brakes on the shift to voice becoming a primary interface and I’m confident that in the early 2020’s there will be a genuine ‘year of voice’, in which we see a rapid, wholesale change in consumer behaviour that subsequently drives some big changes in market dynamics and domination.

Brands, it’s time to get your voice on.