Siri Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Author: Piers Scott
Date: 23 November, 2017

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“Video killed the radio star,” sang The Buggles, on their 1979 hit about a new medium doing away with its forebear. But Piers Scott, lead UX designer at Rothco, believes new voice tech won’t kill off audio ads.

From Hitchcock to Home Assistants: Dial V for Voice Advertising

In 1927, a young Hitchcock had his first major cinematic success, The Lodger. Watching the movie now, it’s easy to recognise that distinctive Hitchcock style and the themes that would reappear throughout his later works. But, as much as this is a Hitchcock film, its style of acting has more to do with the Victorian-era vaudeville – overly dramatic and exaggerated – than 20th-century realism.

Film and cinema might have been new media, but those involved in their production brought with them the style and language of its predecessors.

At the time this film was released, many were wringing their hands at the pending death of the theatre. Similarly, those working in the print media were fretting over the death of newspapers at the hands of radio.

Move on to the 1950s and TV was meant to kill off both cinema and radio. In the 80s home recording was the prospective killer of its predecessor media, and in the 90s the web was finally meant to finish them all off. This decade the smartphone was media’s prospective murderer.

New media, as it turns out, don’t have a great record of killing off their predecessors. As new media emerge, we’re more likely to add them to our existing media consumption habits than forget about the old.

Voice Assistants offer the current opportunity to talk about disruption. The recent conversation about Voice Assistants; like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, has, predictably, taken the same approach.

Like film in the 1920s took after theatre, the received wisdom is that voice assistant ads, being an audio medium, will take after radio commercials. And, like print media of the same era, the fear is that Voice Assistants will do away with ads altogether as consumers move from radio to streaming audio.

The argument is that, as consumers increasingly use voice technologies – which don’t have visual interfaces – we’ll have fewer and fewer opportunities to reach them.

This belief was seemingly proved in March this year when Google’s voice assistant appeared to include promotional content when responding to users’ queries. Users were annoyed, articles were written, and the content quickly disappeared.

For its part, Google understands this, saying that it currently doesn’t want to inject ads into the voice interface. But that doesn’t mean that a voice-controlled future is ad-less (Amazon is currently trialling sponsored content) but that the nature of the ads needs to be different.

Voice Assistants will require a new set of rules, and customers will interact with promotional content on these devices differently. They’ll simply become another medium that we must learn to design for.

I tested Voice Assistants with a small number of users to see exactly how they were using them. While these users told me that they used these devices as information-finding tools (e.g. “what is 56°F in Celsius”), we observed that users more frequently used these devices as planning tools. Consumers want to know what their day’s schedule looked like; if it’s going to rain, they added items to shopping lists and frequently asked the device to remind them of important information at set points during the day.

When these consumers used these devices for product-related searches they wanted to find information about products that they were already considering buying. It appears that consumers don’t need radio-like ads designed to increase awareness – other media do that better. They need content that helps them make more informed decisions about the products that they are interested in buying.

An important point here for consumers is that context is key for successful voice content. This is most apparent and acute when consumers are using voice assistants while driving.

When behind the wheel consumers turn to their voice assistant to find practical information; “Where is the nearest petrol station?” The opportunity here for advertisers, is to use the context of this request to provide the best possible quality of information to consumers. A voice assistant that tells you while you’re driving that there’s a garage nearby, is good but a superior voice assistant would tell you that in the same radius, there’s a garage nearby with better services.

This research may be just a small glimpse into consumers’ usage of voice assistants but it helps us move away from hand-wringing and gives us a clear starting point for providing useful and usable content for consumers on this medium.

We need to accept that voice assistants (as with any new technology) have their own set of rules. And if we set about to research and understand these rules with actual consumers, rather than relying on assumptions based on older ideas and media, we can deliver better quality information to these consumers when they need it; and ultimately better services for our clients.

*This article featured on Shots.net. Check it out here.

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