How big will voice-based interfaces become in 2020, and how will we use voice differently? This question is on the minds of behavioralists, technologists, and businesses everywhere as we all adapt to / create a new normal.
At the outset of 2020, voice was growing at a predictably robust rate. A consumer survey conducted by Voicebot showed that 87.7 million Americans had adopted a smart speaker by January 2020, up 32 percent year over year. Also, the number of in-car voice assistant users rose 13.7 percent to 129.7 million.
And then COVID-19 hit, upending everything. Weeks after President Trump issued a national state of emergency on March 13, a picture is emerging of how people are relying on voice. On April 27, The Wall Street Journal, citing research from Euromonitor International, published a wide-ranging analysis of how consumer behaviors are changing during the pandemic. One of the major trends: people becoming more receptive to the person-machine interface, including voice:
Consumers have suddenly become far more comfortable with robots and other types of artificial intelligence performing jobs traditionally done by humans. Euromonitor earlier this year noted that consumers were buying more AI-enabled home appliances and virtual assistants, like Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa. But now, such devices have a new draw, says [Alison Angus, head of Euromonitor’s lifestyle research]. “Voice-control technology limits the need to touch surfaces so much, so that’s why they are appealing,” she says.
Robotic innovation is further driven by businesses investing in technologies that offer no-contact services and deliveries. “This pandemic could well propel robots into the mainstream, moving them from novelty to essential,” says Ms. Angus. “In fact, it could be a situation where tech actually has to catch up.”
This finding aligns with a blog post I wrote in April, “Mindful Innovation in a New World.” I wrote, “ . . . using smart voice assistants to manage our lives – to do everything from ordering products to getting information – looks to be a less risky behavior from a health standpoint than an interface that requires touching a screen or clicking on a keyboard.”
Are people using voice during this global pandemic? Yes. That’s what research by Edision Research and NPR reveals:
Voice assistant use frequency is indeed on the rise.
What are people using voice to do during the pandemic? The Euromonitor research didn’t say. But a little digging reveals a few interesting uses:
- Cooking: Allrecipes Alexa skill sessions are up 67 percent over the past 30 days. Unique users has risen 80 percent during the same period with first-time users up 45 percent. This data makes perfect sense as people shelter in place and look for more things to do in the home.
- Companionship: as CNet reports, seniors in a California senior living center living in isolation are using Alexa to stay connected with each other.
According to Edison Research Senior Vice President Tom Webster, overall, smart speakers are also becoming a lifeline for information. “With tens of millions of Americans no longer commuting, smart speakers are becoming even more important as a conduit for news and information,” he said in an article, “and this increased usage and facility with voice assistants will likely increase demand for this technology in vehicles once our commutes resume.”
How might uses of voice assistants change throughout the year? Possibilities include:
- Checking up on our own health, especially now that the major voice assistants have made it possible for people to self-check for COVID-19 symptoms.
- Managing mental health. Newsweek reported that the majority of Americans will hit a mental breaking point if stay-at-home orders continue to June. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal, citing Datamonitor, reported that people are going to seek more mindfulness and meditation apps. I expect more people will turn to voice interfaces to find wellness information and mindfulness tools.
- Shopping as part of a broader contact-free experience: ordering and having products delivered end to end, completely no touch.
- Learning as people living in lockdown have more time on their hands. Unfortunately, layoffs and job furloughs are also on the rise, and people living at home are going to use this time for self-improvement.
On the other hand, voice usage in the car will decrease (and presumably already has) even as people gradually start leaving their homes in limited numbers with states easing shelter-in-place mandates. People are not driving as much, and therefore they simply don’t need to use voice assistants for wayfinding and other uses. (But randomized walking paths might become more common because they allow for routing of foot traffic through non-crowded locales.)
Another area to watch: on the job. Technically, using voice to manage in-office tasks such as booking a conference room will continue to plummet. But with “on the job” now meaning working at home, it will be interesting to see how people use voice to manage remote working beyond video conferencing perhaps utilizing dictation for note-taking and action items.
Now is the time for businesses to watch changing consumer behavior closely. The time to invest in voice is now. Don’t wait until “we get through this.” The dawn of a new day is already here.