There are rare occasions that happen on a global scale after which things will never be the same again. COVID-19 pandemic was/is that occasion in our lifetime.
Germs will be more than an afterthought for years to come. Even now, just as the crisis has dialed down to “normal” levels, there are increasing talks about the second wave of the coronavirus and its ability to spread once more (or our inability to stop it from doing so). If there’s one thing technology can do to help, it’s to completely eliminate one of the modals of the virus’ spread – touch.
This is where voice technology steps in. It’s a start that will, ideally, lead to a much broader acceptance both within users and businesses.
From novelty to necessity
With everything we know now about the pandemic (and communicable diseases in general), I believe our heightened awareness will lead to more brands and businesses enabling voice interactions of some kind, and fast at it. This especially goes for companies whose operations largely depend on their physical presence.
In a post-pandemic world, moving from a touch interface to voice wherever it’s feasible should be a necessity. Stepping outside and touching surfaces in public places – it’s a no-no, particularly if there’s a high volume of touch frequency. Even in your home, you have to clean whatever you touch just to be on the safe side (being a bit obsessive is perfectly okay considering the circumstances). As funny as the video above is, an elevator is a great example of how just a little bit of tweaking can improve the overall user experience.
As a user interface, voice is already on a crash course to disrupting or, at the very least, supplementing the current state of affairs. There’s no better proof of concept than what IoT has managed to achieve in half a decade, more or less. A consistent Wi-Fi signal and a smart device of sorts have given life to a smart home, an entire category of automation led by voice technology that makes life more convenient.
The other factor of accelerated adoption will be the cost.
From a business standpoint, the coding ecosystem is accessible to everyone which is why we have lots of great voice devs and agencies that are constantly innovating the user experience. Plus, there is already existing infrastructure in place such as Alexa for Business (a service that enables organizations and employees to use Alexa to get more work done) so even businesses can leverage the technology in a cost-efficient way.
People are doing crazy cool things with a simple and cheap Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer that has done a lot in creating easier access to computing education and practice. For me, it’s impressive and heartwarming to see such a tiny device create an entire culture around it, reaching as far as industrial application. Even if you’re not interested in learning programming skills or building hardware projects for advanced home automation, the tech is within the realm of anyone with the very basic technical know-how.
Voice as a service
It’s not all about removing the touch option from the equation for the sake of hygiene. There is a tremendous potential to push voice as a useful tool all-round.
Does anyone have the feeling of unease among tightly packed crowds of strangers now? How helpful would it have been to have chatbots or voice skills unburden health workers with pre-hospital screenings during coronavirus rush hours? They could be used for screening (performing tests for different illnesses) or appointment setting to not only relieve capacity issues but also to reduce vectors for infectious diseases. Through biometric voice and a smartwatch, for instance, technology can personally monitor for known symptoms and proactively aid.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that voice is the next obvious step in digitizing healthcare in numerous ways (as Teri Fisher neatly explained).
Besides health, so much has already been done in various industries:
BBC launched an in-house voice assistant ‘Beeb’ in beta.
Flipkart rolled out a voice assistant feature on its platform to make it easier for consumers to shop.
Android 11 provided a major upgrade to the ‘Voice Access’ feature, allowing it to understand screen context and content.
Snapchat launched the ‘Voice Scan’ option to use voice commands for lenses.
These are just some of the latest examples of voice technology firmly treading toward massive implementation. One industry we can particularly expect to be more open to integrating voice is travel. As a severely impacted industry, from having chatbots implemented in contact centers for faster customer service to voice assistants acting as personal travel agents and everything in between, a shift to touchless travel will deliver both personalization and much needed health safety measures.
Minding the nuance
Nobody is saying that the implementation of voice tech will “cure” the problems at once. There are far too many variables to take into consideration, starting with the level of user’s receptiveness.
Right now, it’s more of a dream to have a kind of hyper-personalization/customization but it’s something to strive to. On a global scale, progress is hindered by the lack of language support. For instance, the Hebrew language is not supported by Alexa or Google Assistant, which means no local support. That narrows down the number of options (especially in comparison to touch) I have, ultimately falling short of voice’s potential and promise.
The industry didn’t figure out the best scenarios where voice would be solely used or in conjunction with a visual element or not at all. We’re still exploring and trying to find the right mixture – when voice is the superior, complementary, or inferior interface to maximize its advance. Still, I see these as minor bumps on the road.
We did the hard part by establishing a foothold, now it’s on to fine-tuning and innovating further – from malls to offices to households. Realizing the immense potential of voice technology in a multitude of environments is the first, and arguably the most important step to its mass adoption. Facts remain: the cost is affordable and existing infrastructure makes it easier to delve into the world of voice technology. If a worldwide shutdown doesn’t provide a catalyst for large-scale change, I honestly don’t know what will.
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