Will Smart Speakers Have Staying Power?

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This seems like a good time to introduce myself. I’m Theresa Cramer, longtime editor of EContent, and the new editor of Speech Technology. I like to garden, take long walks with my dog, and almost never use Siri. Yes, it’s true, the voice-activated virtual assistant that has become a fixture of so many lives—and, in its own way, helped bring the voice recognition revolution to the masses—goes virtually unused in my pocket.

When I recently upgraded my iPhone, I vowed to change. I enthusiastically trained Siri to my voice so I could activate her hands-free. Frankly, it’s been hit or miss. I know other people who are downright chummy with their virtual assistants. So I had to wonder, is it just me? Probably not.

The 2017 Voice Report by Alpine and VoiceLabs reported that there were 6.5 million voice-first devices shipped in 2016, but voice apps have a retention problem. According to the report, “When a voice application acquires a user, there is only a 3% chance that user will be active in the second week.” Unfortunately, the report doesn’t shed much light on why that might be: “There are outliers yielding greater than 20% second-week retention.”

I predict there are a few things they’ll learn from these success cases. First and foremost, your app has to work. A good user-experience is integral to success. But your app also needs to be useful. It needs to perform a valued service. In other words, it can’t just be a novelty.

We see voice technologies being adopted in all kids of industries—from healthcare to manufacturing. Why? Because they are useful, and help people get their jobs done. While a smart speaker might be fun to have for a little while, these kinds of devices will have to prove their usefulness if they want to become mainstays in our homes. This becomes clear when you see how consumers are actually using these devices. According to the report, “Consumers gravitated to a few key use cases, given they are still learning what these devices can do. Music Streaming & Books, Home Automation, Games & Entertainment and News & Podcasts dominate.”

Let’s think about this for a moment. You probably already had a Bluetooth speaker on which you could play your digital music, audiobooks, and podcasts. Why would you replace that perfectly good Bluetooth speaker with an Amazon Echo or Apple HomePod? Because it improved on the experience. When you’re washing dishes, elbow-deep in bubbles, and your podcast ends, you don’t want to have to dry off to pick a new episode. You’d rather just say, “Hey Alexa, play the new episode of This American Life!”

The use case for consumer adoption is obvious when you think about it in these terms. But how do we move beyond these relatively circumscribed use cases? That remains to be seen.

Theresa Cramer is the editor of Speech Technology magazine. She can be reached at theresa.cramer@infotoday.com.

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