A smart speaker answering comands
The Best Smart Speakers of 2017 PHOTO: Shutterstock

When smart speakers first launched, there was hype about the innovative technology. These days, however, the excitement has waned and adoption has slowed. According to research by Edison, there were 52 million new smart speakers in U.S. households in 2018, but only 38 million additional smart speakers in 2019. 

With this in mind, we’ve turned to voice device experts to learn what some of the roadblocks are for smart speaker and voice app growth, and what changes they’re expecting to see in 2020. There have been a number of factors holding back voice adoption, ranging from high expectations at the outset and spotty developer support to discoverability challenges and privacy concerns.

Unrealistic Expectations

“Expectations were high for voice-activated devices and, to a certain extent, they still are,” said Alex Debecker, CMO of Ubisend. Voice experiences are a new concept, and it’s not realistic to expect brands to immediately leverage smart speakers effectively. Unfortunately, however, poor voice experiences at the outset have pushed away some early adopters.  

“What is exciting,” Debecker continued, “is, due to this infancy, there are no proven 'best practices' from users or manufacturers.” Both are learning and adapting fast, but it still takes time to learn what experiences make the most sense for this technology. With such a fundamentally different medium of interaction, consumers will need to adjust their expectations for brands that launch new voice experiences.

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Developer Support

“One of the biggest roadblocks to success with voice-enabled apps is the support available for developers,” said Olga Ivanishchuk, social media strategist at Sparkloft Media. Amazon incentivizes developers that create Alexa Skills with a certain level of engagement, but most aren’t successful. “Without transparency into Amazon’s Alexa interface,” she explained, “it’s hard to predict which skills will make it and which ones will not.” That means there’s been an influx of poorly designed and functioning Alexa Skills.

Ivanishchuk believes the most successful Alexa Skills have been developed in partnership with Amazon. “Amazon developers have insight into how the code works, what is needed for the skill to be featured on the front page of the Alexa platform, and how to create the skill in a way to engage the user,” she explained. For most developers — that have limited knowledge of the Amazon Skills SDKs — this information isn’t readily available.

Discoverability

“Discoverability of apps and services through voice is far from solved,” Debecker stated. Activating Alexa Skills is clunky because you need to leave the voice ecosystem and visit a website using a phone or computer in order to find them. He believes a more user-friendly marketplace, therefore, could fuel the growth of smart speakers and voice apps. Debecker says Amazon is aware of discoverability issues and is trying to find solutions. “For instance,” he continued, “they frequently send emails with tips, new skills to download, and more.” But revamping the Skills marketplace would be a significant step forward. 

“Today, everything is mobile-first, therefore, an app store would certainly help the discovery of new skills,” added Ivanishchuk, “but that's only the first step in a wider integration of voice technology in a consumer’s daily life.” She believes smart speakers need to become even more intelligent and suggest voice apps to the user instead of having to discover them on their own.

Privacy Concerns

“The slow growth could be attributed to the rising concerns with data privacy,” Ivanishchuk said, “especially as users are tracked with everything they do, which results in becoming more watchful of what information they’re releasing.” That’s why consumer data privacy laws have been tightening in recent years. “Many do not want their smart speaker to listen and analyze private conversations,” she continued, “especially with looming data scandals surrounding both Google and Amazon.” Consumers find it challenging to trust the big tech companies to responsibly use the data they collect from a device that’s always listening within their homes.

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Smart Speakers in 2020: What (Not) to Expect

Until Amazon, Google and other smart speakers vendors can solve many of the roadblocks associated with voice apps, the industry experts don’t expect much to change.

Ivanishchuk believes growth of voice apps will follow the normal business cycle in the short term. “As each new generation finds more ways to integrate this new technology into their lives, with many young children growing up with smart speakers already in their homes,” she concluded, “the adoption rate will organically increase.” We may not see a massive surge in growth, but voice apps and smart speakers may slowly become intertwined within our daily lives.