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Building Voice Interfaces for Smart Speakers

For most consumers, voice interfaces are relatively new but they are quickly becoming a pervasive way to interact with the technology that surrounds us. Smart speakers like Amazon Alexa and Google Home have been an important driver in the evolution of voice user interface technology since their emergence, a couple years ago around 2014.

A look at adoption numbers in the United States reveals that smart speaker devices have progressed beyond adoption by technology enthusiasts (the pioneers) and have begun entering the early majority market (according to ‘Crossing the Chasm’ technology adoption thresholds). As of January 2018, 16 percent of Americans older than 18 — around 39 million people — owned a smart speaker. Adoption is expected to continue to grow rapidly, especially among millennials.

There is certainly an opportunity for smart speakers to improve the lives of many people through the complementary adoption of human-centered product design to enhance the existing technology that is available.

Here at TWG, our recent work with smart speakers has strengthened our belief that voice interfaces are here to stay and will gain importance in the lives of everyday people. When thinking about creating a smart speaker app, there are many factors that will determine whether now is the right time for your business. We’ve compiled a list of considerations to keep in mind when planning any voice interface initiatives:

Solve Problems and Stay Focused

App developers navigate the current limitations of new voice platforms by focusing their efforts on addressing specific pain points that people have. For example, voice interfaces have proven to be more effective than mobile or web-based interfaces in situations where convenience is the most important consideration criteria, or when the user is multitasking. Imagine you’re at home cooking dinner and decide you want to play some music but your hands are covered in food — that’s where a voice app comes in handy.

An important consideration when designing a voice app is how well people remember how to access and use the app without needing to listen to repetitive menus and tutorials. We discovered that our clients should avoid creating a bloated voice app with too many features and complex menus will make it more difficult for users to recall usage patterns. These types of menus actually make it more tedious to listen to the automated responses that are required. — The key insight? — Taking what you have on your existing web or mobile app and translating the experience exactly as is to a voice interface isn’t ever the right approach. The context and use cases are very different, and therefore so are the needs. Consider that people will be at home almost exclusively when accessing a voice app, whereas they may be virtually anywhere on a mobile device.

Form New Behaviors

The annual Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Researchthat studies audio trends revealed last year that people who purchase a smart speaker will listen to more talk content, such as podcasts and radio than they did prior. This new form factor has increased adoption both in terms of time spent and adoption of audio as a new medium for interaction. One example of this is children requesting games and songs to entertain themselves. This is an opportunity to understand previously unknown user behaviors that relate to your offering that can also positively impact your product roadmap in ways you hadn’t considered before.

Create Delightful Experiences

Our research has shown that smart speaker users, for the most part, aren’t aware of what these devices can and can’t do. This makes it possible for organizations to create experiences that pleasantly surprise users who are open to discovery. This delight can lead to organic referrals through word of mouth.

Assist Users with App Discovery’s Smart Speaker Consumer Adoption Report puts the number of smart speaker owners who use third-party voice apps at 48%, and a significant 11% of them end up leaving app reviews — that’s 10–20x times higher than app reviewers in general. However, the same report also warns of low retention rates among this smart speaker user group. The implication is that organizations need to be prepared to leverage their existing product and marketing channels to help fuel awareness of their voice app. Of course, solving a specific use case, as we’ve discussed, is a critical contributing factor in creating an inherently valuable and therefore memorable voice app.

Create Room for Improvements

Plan to learn from your users. Release a private beta so that invited users can provide the feedback needed for iteration, without the risk of large swaths of people discovering the app and leaving bad reviews. This also helps encourage community and engagement.

First Mover Advantage

Being a first mover in your space to build a voice interface creates an opportunity to capture the attention of new users who own one of these devices and have a specific pain point. Being available before your competitors can create an opportunity for your company to win over those users.

Practice Makes Perfect

Designing for voice takes practice. Developing your organisation’s internal skill-set with these platforms early on will put you ahead of the game. Designing experiences for voice interfaces requires its own strategies, processes, and tools, all of which take time to develop.

Partnership Opportunities

In an effort to grow the overall value of the ecosystem, speaker platforms are eager to work with app developers who can show success in engaging users. Gaining access to private platform features brings more value to users and increases the app’s overall chances of success. Dig deep here, and don’t be hesitant to reach out to first parties like Google and Amazon when you have a track record of success.

The relevance of voice interfaces to your business may seem tenuous today, but beginning to understand how user engagement and behaviors are developing on voice-enabled platforms will put you in a unique position to make an informed decision about if and when a voice initiative should be pursued.

If you’re interested in learning more about our work with voice interfaces or would like to help us build them, you can always give us a shout!