Why Virtual Assistants Need to Up Their UX Game

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It’s little surprise that Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and Cortana have become household names. These and other voice-activated virtual personal assistants (VPAs) are increasingly popular, with more than 2 billion people expected to use conversational AI to interact with these technologies this year, per Gartner’s Forecast Snapshot: VPA-Enabled Wireless Speakers, Worldwide report. Virtual customer assistant (VCA) chatbots—deployed by businesses on their websites or other digital touchpoints to answer customer questions about products and services—also remain in wide use. 

Consider that ownership of smart speakers is estimated to hit nearly 40% by the end of 2018, according to Accenture’s Time to Navigate the Super Myway report. That same study also revealed that up to 94% of VPA device users polled were satisfied with their purchases.

Yet, other research reveals some troubling trends. A separate Gartner study from late last year, VPA Usage Across Devices: Essential for Few Users, but Not Everybody Is Convinced, indicates a higher dropoff rate than many would think, with one in 10 users admitting they’ve stopped using their smart speakers. A survey conducted by eGain and Chatbots.org found that 53% of respondents regard chatbots as “not effective” or only “somewhat effective”; among the top VCA-related hassles ranked by those polled were chatbots “getting stuck and not knowing what to do next” and not being intelligent enough. And a 2017 Voice Report study by VoiceLabs shows that when Alexa or Google Assistant is able to get a user to enable a voice app/skill, the likelihood that that user will be active by the second week is only 3%.

In light of these and other concerning findings, it’s fair to ask: Are VPAs a short-term fad, and how can user experience be improved to ensure they’re not? “There is certainly the danger that consumers will be put off by the shortcomings of the technology,” says Michael McTear, professor emeritus of knowledge engineering at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. “This has happened with apps on smartphones and, before that, with applications like voice dictation software. There’s been a lot of hype about chatbots and virtual assistants, and this has the unfortunate consequence of raising expectations unduly. These expectations can often lead to disappointment, as chatbots do not have the conversational competence of humans.”

Despite the hype, VPAs are here to stay—although there’s lots of room for improvement—believes Werner Goertz, research director for Gartner. “They are an enabler that will become more pervasive outside the context of small speakers. But we’ll have to be patient, because the success of VPAs caught us all by surprise,” Goertz says. “It will take time for them to proliferate, for users to become more accustomed to the technology, and for VPAs to develop vocabulary and interactive patterns that are intuitive and natural.” 

Goertz notes that VPAs currently provide most value to consumers in their ability to answer simple to intermediately complex queries, create alarms and reminders, provide entertainment in the form of music and interactive/trivia games, and interface with many smart-home features. But consumers will come to expect more of this technology, and their satisfaction will require more progress.

“Virtual assistants need to do a better job of predicting intent. They should solve more complex queries and go beyond reactive to be more proactive,” says Anand Subramaniam, senior vice president of global marketing for eGain Corporation. “Chatbot silos—in which interactions with a virtual assistant are completely disconnected from other customer touchpoints—are another problem that needs to be solved, too.”

McTear says poorly designed chatbots are counter-productive, as they will discourage consumers from using this type of customer service. Goertz agrees. “Not all languages are supported and not all accents are equally recognized. We still don’t have a fully personalized contextual knowledge of the user, which is an essential ingredient to user satisfaction,” notes Goertz. “We continue to lack the ability to have extended, complete conversations with a VPA. And further proliferation of VPAs across different device categories needs to happen. That means, for example, bringing Alexa to the car, public kiosks, and the enterprise environment at work.”

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