How to have a voice in the Aussie kitchen

by Peter Nann
11 December 2017
How to have a voice in the Aussie kitchenVoice-activated virtual assistants are moving into Australian households. But will they be speaking to customers about your business?

With the current push of Google Home and the arrival of Apple HomePod and Amazon Alexa in the new year, Australians will soon be well versed in the immense convenience of in-home voice assistants. 

Giving its users the hands-free ability to do everything from playing their favourite music to making a dental appointment, it’s likely the domestic market will follow the US in its take-up and in-home voice assistants will become literally a part of the local furniture.

As a consequence, brands in Australia and New Zealand are now waking up to the fact that there is an open door into a lot of households. Smart businesses are taking the early advantage by exploring opportunities to engage positively with their customers in their very homes via these voice technology products.

So what are voice-activated virtual assistants?

Most of us have been using them on our smartphones for a while, like Siri and Google Assistant. That has now extended to household devices such as Google Home and Google Home Mini, which is now available in Australia, and will be followed in 2018 by Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s HomePod. 

How do they differ from the voice-activated virtual assistant on your phone? Consider that every time you use your phone’s assistant you must first find your phone (or remove it from your pocket), possibly hold down a button, and then ask your question or make your request. 

Amazon Dot

But if you’re at the breakfast table with your children, elbow-deep in washing up or in the middle of stuffing the turkey, having to touch anything is not a good option. An in-home voice-activated virtual assistant instead listens for your voice and responds to your query or request without you skipping a beat.

It's this 'truly hands-free' part that isn't obvious to people, but once you experience it and realise you can just keep on doing what you’re doing and get the information you need, it offers a true wow factor. 

This simplicity is its attraction. In the US, these in-home voice-activated virtual assistants have well and truly taken off – 11 million Amazon Echos alone were sold in 2016. And for the 2017 calendar year, sales figures are predicted to double. They’re also dramatically changing their users’ shopping habits, with those typically making less in-store purchases once they begin utilising voice assistant offerings. 

The next revolution is voice

What are people using them for beyond checking the weather? They’re booking taxis, ordering pizzas, doing online shopping, and making doctor appointments. They’re checking travel time to the football stadium on game night, buying flight tickets, and booking birthday dinners at restaurants. And they’re doing it all, quite literally, without lifting a finger.

Businesses benefitting are the ones that have made a conscious effort to be involved in the voice technology. Just like in the early days of the internet, there are great advantages offered to early entrants to the market.

Who are the main players?

In the US, Amazon (70.6%) and Google (23.8%) dominate the in-home voice-assistant market, but other major brands like Apple are getting traction. In Australia, Google has an early head start getting devices in store before Amazon's Alexa and Apple’s HomePod. The latter two are due to be launched in early 2018.

Anna Schraff

The Google Home is available now in two versions in Australia. There’s the Google Home for $199 and the smaller Google Home Mini for $79. In the US,  there’s also a larger Google Home Max. The different versions share similar functionality but have varying speaker qualities. This is important, as one of the most popular uses of the voice assistant is to play music - “Hey Google, play my Ed Sheeran playlist on Spotify”.

So an Australian household can have its own voice assistant for just $79, and at this price point there’s little barrier to entry. After that, it’s all about word of mouth.

How does business use the technology?

The development route taken by voice technology in the US was driven largely by Amazon. The devices were good for some general knowledge questions and for playing music, but they were even better for purchasing products from Amazon, which pushed the market forward in the US where so many households purchase Amazon products. 

To give you a sense of its reach, Amazon's Prime program is predicted to be in more than half of American homes before the year is out. For a $99 annual fee, Prime customers not only get faster shipping, but features like Amazon's digital library of music, movies, television, and books; one-hour restaurant delivery; and unlimited cloud storage for your photos.

Amazon has wisely designed the technology to offer an end-to-end service. A customer would make the purchase on the Amazon Echo from an Amazon retailer and have the purchase fulfilled via Amazon infrastructure.

That’s a big reason why Amazon, Google and Apple are investing so much in voice assistant technology, because this technology drives customers to their other offerings. The Amazon Echo connects seamlessly with Amazon retailers. Apple can keep people within its walled garden and convince more customers to sign up for such services as Apple Music. 

And Google brings other retailers on board, such as Costco, and drives people to those partner retailers. At the same time, Google keeps a major interest in what it likely believes to be the next iteration of the internet – surfing without a screen – while collecting valuable data.

One-size technology does not fit all

What does this mean for business? As mentioned, it’s similar to the early days of the internet and the various arguments businesses had about how it might affect them. The first question to ask is how a customer can use the technology in relation to your business.

Once that has been decided – and it is vital that such a decision is made from the point of view of the customer, not from the marketing department’s wishlist – the business should then ensure everything they do on the platform has a central theme of simplicity and immediacy. 

You don’t want the user to have to go through a complex set of actions to get to what they need.

For example, a bank customer won’t use this technology to do every type of transaction. They will perhaps want to find out their account balance, or be told when a certain payment has gone into their account. But they won’t want to transfer funds because they won’t trust all of those numbers, BSBs and account numbers, to a voice-operated device with no screen.

A retail store will also require various types of functionality, such as location, operating hours and perhaps stock levels of particularly popular items. And a restaurant or a medical clinic might want to add a simple booking service including next-available appointment or after-hours emergency processes. 

What will customers do by voice?

Businesses must think about this carefully. What do your users really want to access by voice? Once that is figured out it’s time to put it all into action by building a voice app, or by employing an expert to do so.

Unlike a smartphone app, a voice app doesn’t run on the device. All of the action happens in the cloud, so when writing a voice app you’re actually writing a cloud-based service. This means deployment is incredibly easy and efficient, you just have to release your service in one place for the entire world to access it.

Speak the language of the customer

The one final challenge is voice user interface (VUI) design. A lot of apps are being written with poor VUI design, such as sentences that are put together unnaturally or ambiguously. It can be as simple as saying “you're” instead of “you are”. One looks better on paper and the other sounds more natural in speech. Spoken language is different to written language.

Also think about who will be using your voice service to come to a specific tone of voice that will work best with your customer base. Will it be teenagers or retirees, somewhere in between, or all of the above?

Corporates in Australia are also taking notice of voice technology. The country’s second largest telco Optus recently announced it now offers Optus Assistant for Google Assistant. Optus Assistant is a voice-activated AI assistant that enables customers to ask Google Home and some smartphones questions about their personal mobile plan without needing a handheld device.
Optus Assistant is a voice extension of its My Optus App, which the company says recognises customers’ want for a frictionless digital service experience.

Some SMEs are also now beginning to look around for businesses that can build them such an app. Just like early adopters online, those businesses will have the jump on the rest. Will your business be one of them?

Find out more about Salmat’s speech solutions offering here or call us on 1300 725 628. 

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About the author
Peter Nann
Tech Lead-Speech & Automation, Salmat

Peter has been living and breathing VUI (Voice UI) development for 23 years, from the earliest commercial forays in this space in Australia in the 1990's, waiting all that time for the future to finally arrive.  Over the years he has worked with many organisations in Australia and abroad realising speech recognition solutions that service multiple millions of real-world user contacts every year.

More articles by Peter Nann