Why humans love voice-activated virtual assistants

by Peter Nann
27 November 2017
Why humans love voice-activated virtual assistants
Voice-activated virtual assistants naturally appeal to our human senses because they operate in a way that we are hardwired to appreciate.

It feels very modern to speak to a device and have it respond in an intelligent fashion – almost as if you’re in The Jetsons. It's exciting to have a machine with seemingly endless knowledge respond to you in your own language.

This is a big part of the appeal of voice technology with products such as Google Home and Google Home Mini, which are now in Australia, and the Apple HomePod and Amazon Echo which are due in the new year.

This thrill of effective and efficient voice assistance is quite surprising, particularly as most Australians have had similar tech on their smartphones for several years. And we’ve been using voice automation even longer. 

In Australia we’ve been dealing with voice assistants on customer service hotlines for banks and telcos since the mid-1990s. Voice functionality was introduced to cars about 10 years later, and on mobile phones around 2010. And voice biometrics have been used for security by the Australian Taxation Office since 2014. It has since extended the service to its mobile app. 

The rise of user-friendly voice technology

US research group Gartner predicts 75% of US homes will have a voice-activated virtual assistant by 2020. So what explains the recent surge in popularity of in-home voice-activated virtual assistants? How is it that they have already made such huge inroads in everyday life in the US? It’s all to do with simply being human.

Baby on phone

Learning to talk is one of the major milestones in a person's life.

People find voice communication very natural and easy; it's one of the very first things we strive to learn. So combine that ease and the much-improved artificial intelligence of voice assistant systems and it makes the entire experience frictionless. Pulling your phone out of your pocket suddenly feels positively cumbersome

A person, with no experience with computers or navigating the internet, could easily use Google Home to order some takeaway, book a movie, or set a timer to check on their dinner simply because it speaks their language. 

Customers must be at the centre of all decisions

The flipside of this is that application developers have to make their app work in the way that humans consciously or subconsciously expect it to. There is no point in developing a voice app that requires an instruction manual – that would not fly with consumers and be a complete waste of time.

The voice interface forces developers to take a user-centric design approach around how the app works. And, to be honest, if interfaces in many other technological areas took such an approach, we’d all be better off.

The voice space gives developers real options to design around how users speak and how they behave. Successful apps so far have mostly achieved that and indeed those apps are only successful because the market – the human beings that are the apps’ users – has decided that it works in a way that fits in with expectations. 

Not that it has been all plain sailing. Poor user experience damaged the technology’s reputation for quite a while. Everybody has felt the frustration as their bank’s virtual telephone assistant has misunderstood basic words, or as Siri has returned a completely nonsensical response to the most basic question. 

Making technology more human

This frustration was made more painful because spoken language, to humans, is so simple and clear. We have managed it since we were young children, so why can’t the machines manage it now? 

But as the technology has improved, it is falling in line with our natural way of communicating.

So you have a very useful form of technology that communicates with us on our own terms, rather than us having to work around and learn its operating system. 

The Amazon Dot often lives in the kitchen
Virtual assistants often live in the kitchen.

It’s also a technology we can use while we cook, while we work, while we jog or while we drive, and the more we use it the smarter and more personalised it becomes. In other words, it is not intrusive but assistive. 

Google Glass had a similar philosophy – to overlay and improve the world that the user was naturally seeing through their own eyes – but other issues around privacy and practicality torpedoed that project. 

Do customers want privacy or convenience?

Of course, there are issues around privacy with voice assistants, too. What is being recorded by a device that is permanently listening for its name to be called? What type of data is being kept and connected to your name, your family and your address? These types of questions are connected to almost everything we do online. Having said that, people often talk about security concerns, but they often end up going with convenience in the long run.

When you boil down the success of voice-activated virtual assistants in the US, and with other countries likely to follow suit, that’s what it comes down to – convenience. 

Do you walk to the local fish and chip shop to find out what time it closes? Of course you don’t, because there’s an easier option – instead you grab your smartphone and google the shop.

Once there’s a voice-activated virtual assistant in your home there will be an even easier option. You won’t be walking to the store or reaching for your phone. You’ll continue doing whatever it is you’re doing and say out loud, “Hey Google, what time does Snappy Seafood close today?”

When it works smoothly, this type of convenience creates the single most powerful form of marketing – word of mouth. Just as we’re most comfortable dealing with technology that speaks to us in a language we understand, we’re also most likely to be influenced by referrals from friends.

If somebody we trust tells us that something has truly made a positive difference in their life, it makes that thing a lot more attractive to us. This, too, is part of being human. 

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