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6 years of failure on finding solutions to voice

Waiting for a Voice of Reason. Will big tech rely on user insights to fix its smart assistant problem?

Six years in business have given us countless opportunities to design meaningful, human-derived solutions for our clients. A solution to one challenge, however, remains elusive. Despite multiple opportunities over the years, we continue to chase our white whale: how to deliver more effective voice technology.

Fortunately, we’re in good company. The biggest names in tech—Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft among them—have thrown serious financial and intellectual capital at AI-driven voice technology. But despite ample resources and extraordinary engineering and design talent, voice remains a source of frustration for end users. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It chimes in without being asked and all too often fails to make an impact when called upon. Any excitement about what it could do is tempered by what it does do: mundane tasks like turning off the lights or telling jokes, two of the few tasks it performs with aplomb.

We believe there are actually two questions to answer about voice: one, are consumers aware of what voice can still do for them, or are they comfortable settling? Two, what do the companies providing voice technology need to do differently in their development approach?

If consumers have trouble imagining a world where voice is capable of more (not unreasonable, given its struggles to perform more substantial tasks), then it becomes difficult to design truly impactful solutions, no matter how much money and brain power companies invest. It too often seems that tech’s power players are content to fall in love with voice technology in itself, forgetting about the humans who will use it.

If our work has taught us anything, it is that becoming enamored with technology for technology’s sake is not a recipe for success. No matter how advanced the tech, how smart the people designing it, or how tantalizing the possibilities, voice recognition tech lives or dies on meeting human needs. When we address a product by name to use it—“Hey Siri,” “Okay Google,” “Alexa, turn off the lights”—we are in effect expecting something like a human interaction. When our ‘assistant’ struggles to assist, it quickly is relegated to curio status: novel and useful for very specific tasks, but nothing more.

Talking about problems is easy, but investing in solutions is hard. Smart people at big companies are working to provide those solutions, but they need to ask and answer the right questions first.

We’ll chase our white whale alongside them, trusting that human insight will yield its time-honored results.

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