How screens can bring fun to the dull world of voice
A view from Lawrence Weber

How screens can bring fun to the dull world of voice

Consumers just don't seem interested in using their shiny new smart speakers for anything particularly shiny. Adding screens will allow brands to experiment.

There is a pretty strong case for voice being a topic worthy of serious brand attention and one that seems to have matured well beyond its years, particularly in the home.

The bespoke smart speaker hardware and services landscape has changed from being completely dominated by one player – Amazon and its category-defining Alexa – to perhaps being the fiercest tech platform battleground, with Google and Amazon being recently joined by the ominous-sounding Portal from Facebook.

Crucially, consumer adoption has followed the hardware explosion, both in terms of purchase behaviour – according to Argos, 10% of the UK population owns a smart speaker – and, perhaps most importantly, usage. Research shows that 25% of consumers use their smart speaker once a day.

If you scratch beneath the surface of those good news numbers, though, it is startlingly clear that consumers have developed a strong habit of usage around a small set of very functional services and the chances of your brand breaking the habit – or breaking into it – are quite slim.

There is clear consumer engagement, for instance, around use cases such as playing music, answering general questions and setting alarms. However, despite the experimentation from the world’s largest brands, consumers just don’t seem interested in using their shiny new smart speakers for anything particularly shiny.

As a responsible and somewhat aged innovation person who has been extolling the virtues of the functional over the fun for a long time, you would think I, and my ilk, would be happy.

However, there is an overwhelming sense that voice is, well, a bit dull.

Even if you develop a skill lots of people use, until Alexa and her kind develop into fully fledged assistants that are capable of conversation in context rather than following barked single orders, "useful" in this context is executional and forgettable. Many brands say they want to be utilities but, as utility brands will tell you, people take you for granted until you disappoint – at which point you become disliked.

It’s clear that the platforms have realised the limitation of a pure voice interface – particularly in the home – and the release of the screen-laden Show, Hub and the Portal point to the next version of smart assistants being hybrid interfaces. The introduction of the screen, though, won’t just help make existing use cases better, such as using cooking skills or voice searching for music on Spotify – it opens up the door for us all to experiment, even if the newness of the hardware means we will be taking a punt on what consumers might want.

Our approach to innovation at Curve is to help clients create their own ideas and use the power of our friends in the start-up and production space to get a pilot to market quickly. In that spirit of getting things done, here are three easy things that you could try to either start your voice journey or think about the impact of a hybrid voice/screen device on something you’ve already created.

Build a voice skill (in your lunch hour)

Unless you have a sense of the current limitations of Voice, it's hard to see how a visual interface might make them better. What’s not hard though, is building a Voice skill in the first place. Firstly work out a real use case for Voice and test it by asking a friendly colleague to play the part of the Echo. Does it feel like a natural use of Voice with its current limitations? If it does then pick up a tool like that from start-up Storyline to create a prototype, that you can test in a browser.

Think about how a screen helps make voice skills better

Once you have a skill that people can use, think about how the addition of a screen might improve it. Especially think about devices like the Hub and Show not as dumb TV’s with a voice interface, but as a new way of interacting.

The touch screen means you can allow people to swap between an initial Voice interaction to a more familiar screen based one to deal with the achilles heel of Voice – choice – before you deliver the final piece of content or execute the final command – this kind of interaction model gives us a clue as to how Google might solve the Voice search conundrum. It will also give a massive boost to experimenters like the BBC and Lego – who are already blazing a trail in how the world of stories and play work in a pure voice sense.

Think about how video makes you better (not just for advertising)

The obvious route for brands when confronted by a screen is to do what they’ve always done and put an ad – or "content" – on it. There will of course be media opportunities galore to target affluent early adopters who use their Shows. However, the real opportunity is to connect your brand to it’s community or customers via these new devices that are designed for Video calls. That is after all the explicit strategy of the world’s biggest social network Facebook in launching its Portal.

There is undoubted value in being a helpful, useful brand in the Voice 1.0 space but if you can’t find a way to do it meaningfully today, why not think of a way for your brand to flourish tomorrow in the hybrid world of Voice 2.0.

Lawrence Weber is a partner at Curve