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Voice Assistant Anyone? Yes please, but not in public!

June 3rd, 2016

Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and OK Google are all hot names in tech right now. Digital assistants powered by artificial intelligence are the next big thing for Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Consumers however, might not be as excited. We set out to understand more about how consumers are using these agents as well as how they feel about them. We ran two distinct studies — one focused on Alexa that covered 1300 early adopters across the US and the UK and a second one in the US focused on 500 mainstream consumers and their use of smartphones based voice assistants.

It is this second study I find particularly interesting in understanding how far we still have to go before digital assistants and voice-first UIs are embraced by the masses.

It will not come as a surprise that 21% of our panel have never used Siri, 34% have never used OK Google and 72% have never used Cortana. When we look within each ecosystem, the numbers get better: only 2% of iPhone owners have never used Siri and only 4% of Android owners have never used OK Google. The majority of active users within their distinct ecosystems admit to use these features only rarely or sometimes: 70% for Siri and 62% for OK Google. (Unfortunately, we did not have a statistically significant number of Windows Phone users in our panel)

Even more interesting is to look at the people who do use voice assistants and see where they use them. 39% of these consumers use voice assistants in the home, 51% in the car, 1.3% at work and 6% in public. Why is this interesting? Two reasons:

  1. The high proportion of usage in the car would suggest it has more to do with the hands-free law that regulate driving and texting vs. a free choice by consumers to embrace this technology. As our consumer sample was mainstream it is fair to assume the higher usage in the car was not driven by the integration of CarPlay or Android Auto. These systems would expand the voice controls to the entertainment system as well as the phone in a more seamless way than doing that over Bluetooth on the phone. Interestingly, iPhone owners’ usage in the car is even higher than average at 62% and Android is lower at 37%, which is somewhat surprising given the high attach rate of Google Maps in Android.
  2. 20% of consumers who said they never used a voice assistant stated they had not done so because they feel uncomfortable talking to their technology, especially in public. With public usage as low as 3% for iPhone users, it seems users are still uncomfortable talking to their devices. Even more fascinating is this happens in the US where consumers are accustomed to talking loudly on phones in public. The US is the land of iDEN, the technology that, for many years, allowed consumers to use their phones like a walkie-talkie. A very similar technology called Push-to-Talk never took off in Europe, mainly because consumers felt it was not socially acceptable to have your conversation heard by people in your vicinity. In Asia, most people still cover their mouth when talking on the phone. Cultural differences will certainly impact how voice assistants will take off and develop in different regions. In the US, it is interesting that Android users show the highest usage of voice assistant in public with 12%, possibly because more Android users are likely to have experienced iDEN-based mobile phones in the past than iPhone users.

While changing cultural habits and perceptions is never easy, there is certainly more that can be done with technology. As wearables become more pervasive – and I am not thinking here about just smartwatches but earbuds, clothing and so on – the ability to hear and carry sound will also improve. This coupled with AI’s ability to turn current voice assistants into true digital agents able to have natural exchanges will remove the barrier of “talking to technology”.

Carolina Milanesi

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