With Product Companion Apps, the Mobile Future Looks Even Brighter

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In the near future, many everyday products will come with product companion apps, which will provide all the information we need to use the products. The app will integrate the currently used tools for providing information, removing any redundancy (and inconsistency). Users will download the app to their mobile devices so the information is available whenever and wherever they need it. It will teach the product owner how to use, test, troubleshoot, and repair the product when it is broken. If the product is software, the app will provide instructions on how to install and update it. If it's hardware, the companion app will explain how to assemble and maintain it.

A companion app will provide product information including but not limited to a glossary of terms, shortcut commands, debugging instructions, updates, and vendor contact information.

Such apps will always be available, because they reside on users' mobile devices, phones, or tablets. Users can access information anytime with a few finger swipes whenever they need help.

Why do we need them? Companion apps helps people have a good experience when using a product. They are not lost when product packaging is discarded, since users can always download an electronic copy from a vendor's Web site.

Using the Companion App

There are a number of ways to use companion apps. Depending upon the product, users can watch video demonstrations, review training tutorials, or perform training exercises. They can search electronically for needed information. An app also may contain virtual agents that answer questions about the product and how to use it.

Apps can also be updated automatically with the latest FAQs and program fixes. The product vendor notifies the buyer of upgrades, related products, and services. The companion app is always up to date.

With software products, an app can detect when the user is having problems and offer assistance. Subject to user approval, the companion app could collect performance data, which the vendor analyzes to make product improvements.

For software products, the user can activate the app by pressing or touching the help button on the application screen, or it can be invoked automatically when an error occurs. For automobiles, baby seats, clocks, and other kinds of appliances and devices, the user only needs to initiate the corresponding companion app on his or her mobile device.

If someone needs to use both hands while using a product, the virtual agent in the app uses speech recognition to listen to user requests, such as "show next page," "replay that video," or "zoom in to the schematic." The product owner can use a smartphone to take pictures that the virtual agent will analyze to recommend an appropriate action. For example, the virtual agent may recognize a broken gear and recommend a replacement.

Companion apps minimize the need for customer service agents and related service expenses. Eventually, companion apps may integrate with an IVR app, by migrating much of the IVR software to reside on the mobile device. Only in extreme situations will the app place a call to a human agent.

When a product is purchased, the companion app is free on a CD attached to it. Alternately, it can be downloaded from the app store, which will feature many product companion apps.

Companion Apps and IVRs

Some early versions of product companion apps are now available as FAQs or installation instructions on the Internet. To remain competitive, vendors will need to make product companion apps with greater capabilities available for each of their products.

Will companion apps replace IVR systems? Yes, in the sense that users will no longer need to call an IVR server to find information. No, in the sense that the companion app may contain an outdated version of the IVR system. Product vendors should begin planning what help tools to integrate into their product companion apps to determine the future relationship between their product companion apps and the IVR systems.

James A. Larson, Ph.D., is an independent speech consultant. He is co-program chair for SpeechTEK. He also teaches courses in speech user interfaces at Portland State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology. He can be reached at jim@larson-tech.com.

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