microphones hanging from the ceiling
PHOTO: Rots Marie-Hélène

The most natural interface to interact with is voice. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, voice experiences were well on their way to becoming the next big customer engagement platform.

In 2016, seven million people in the US owned a smart speaker. That number jumped to 33 million in 2017 and doubled to hit over 66 million at the end of 2018. Today, nearly 90 million US adults own smart speakers. These numbers will only continue to rise as the world deals with the fallout from COVID-19 and its impact on customer experiences.

Since the start of the pandemic, 35% of US smart speaker owners say they listen to more news and information through their devices. Another 36% say they have increased their consumption of music and entertainment through their speakers. Couple that with the reported 65% increase in Alexa Skills usage in April and May, and it’s clear that people are relying more on voice technology as they spend more time in their homes. While the increase in smart speaker usage is a positive sign for the staying power of voice, newer use cases may be even better indicators of just how far the market for voice can go.

Voice Is Evolving

Since its inception, voice has been a consumer-first platform oriented around Google Actions, Alexa Skills and all the devices that supported these functions. As the smart speaker usage statistics mentioned earlier indicate, voice to this point has primarily been used for the purposes of media and entertainment, smart home control, news and information, hands-free culinary help, and small retail purchases. But voice has recently started to evolve into different areas.

Voice capabilities are now being added to existing digital properties — such as mobile and web apps or IVR (Interactive Voice Response) systems — and voice navigation that previously progressed consumers through a control tree is now turning into assisted functionality. We’re also seeing more and more brands launch their own voice assistants, such as the BBC’s recently announced Beeb, to meet the specific needs of their customers.

The biggest development, however, may be the new use cases we're seeing as a result of the precautions now being introduced under COVID-19. China has introduced voice-controlled elevators, where users simply speak the floor they are looking to travel to instead of touching the elevator buttons, to help stop the spread of the virus. There is similar potential for retailers, where voice can be a means to get product information, navigate the store layout or checkout with contactless payment.

While voice has taken center stage in many of these conversations, it is not the only conversational AI technology that can help mitigate the risk of infection. COVID-19-specific chatbots are also being launched by healthcare organizations to educate people on the virus, answer questions and more.

Related Article: The Voice End Game: Personalized, Relevant, Everywhere

Things Aren’t Changing … They’re Accelerating

While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly played a role in these new experiences and use cases making their way into the mainstream, they were areas that would have been explored in the future — though likely not for a few years.

Scott Galloway, clinical marketing professor at New York University, recently stated in relation to the pace of change and the pandemic that, "Things won’t change as much as they will accelerate. While other crises reshaped the future, COVID-19 is just making the future happen faster."

This quote applies perfectly to conversational AI in 2020. Although it was already well on its way to becoming a key customer engagement platform, the pandemic and ensuing lockdown forced the pace of innovation to increase quickly and urgently. The key for businesses will be ensuring that the customer experience remains of the highest quality when bringing conversational AI features to market quickly in order to meet the market demands of our new normal.

Related Article: The Future Is Multimodal: Why Voice Alone Will Never Be the Answer