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Smartphone voice assistants: Just hype or the real deal?

In October 2011, Apple’s voice assistant Siri was introduced to the iPhone. Despite an initial burst of enthusiasm, the reality did not live up to users’ high expectations, and Siri fast became the butt of jokes.

It is now early 2016, and we are looking at a talking, listening bot-filled landscape. 2015 was the year of Amazon Echo, Apple TV, Android Auto, and Hello Barbie. There are numerous voice assistants to choose from with unique personalities and specialties running from scheduling meetings, to patient diagnosis, to booking flights, to ordering pizzas. Siri processed over a billion queries per week, Microsoft’s CEO declared that smartphone assistants would replace the web browser, and Google announced massive gains in speech recognition accuracy.

How are we using voice assistants?

In June 2015, 451 Research surveyed US mobile phone owners and found that 13 per cent used voice assistants every day, 14 per cent used them weekly, and 10 per cent used them monthly. Since this comes out to only one third of mobile phone users using voice assistants at least once per month, Michele Chandler of Investor’s Business Daily recently posed the question: 'why aren’t people using voice activated assistants?'

Is it true that they aren’t? Are companies like Domino’s engaging in marketing hype, or have the perception and usage of voice assistants genuinely shifted among consumers? Because the phenomenon of widespread voice-driven devices is so new, there is limited public-facing research on the subject. However, our January 2016 report of 1800 smartphone users may shed some light on these questions.

Perception shifting

According to our research, at the beginning of 2015, approximately 37 per cent of smartphone users had tried the voice assistants on their phones. Not a huge number. However, 2015 saw 29 per cent of smartphone users trying voice assistants for the very first time, bringing the year-end total to 62 per cent of smartphone users who had used voice assistants. Out of that number, 70 per cent use voice assistants at least monthly, and 55 per cent use voice assistants at least weekly.

451 studied all mobile phone users (not specifically smartphone users), so the comparison is not exact. However, our January research does suggest that this is a very fast-developing field, and research conducted nine months ago cannot be relied upon as an accurate indicator of where the market currently stands.

Considering that over 64 per cent of US adults own a smartphone, the sheer number of people trying voice search in 2015 is really large. Interestingly, our two reports from consecutive quarters (Q4 2015, Q1 2016) both show about 62 per cent of smartphone users having used voice assistants. Much like the general US smartphone market, the marketplace may be saturated for general-purpose voice assistants like Siri, Cortana, and OK Google, with the majority of the people who are interested in them already having tried them.

Indeed, when asked, 35 per cent of respondents who had not tried voice assistants expressed openness to the idea of one day trying them. In other words, another 12 per cent of total US smartphone users remain likely to convert in the long run, which is less than half of the gain made in 2015.

Where next for growth?

If we have mostly exhausted the growth potential for general-purpose smartphone assistant adoption, where does that leave us? At this stage, the data suggest potential for future growth in the following areas:

Frequency of voice assistant use

In Q4 2015, 49 per cent of voice assistant users reported using their assistants regularly (daily or weekly). In Q1 2016, that number climbed to 55 per cent. This percentage is likely to continue to climb: 72 per cent of voice assistant users report that their use frequency would increase if further improvements were made in speech recognition, natural language understanding, and information retrieval, among other areas.

Incorporation of voice into other applications and devices

Many people report wanting voice functionality incorporated into the apps they commonly use. 40-41 per cent say they want voice added to shopping, travel, video, and local services apps. Meanwhile, 50 per cent of people who use music apps like Spotify and Pandora say that they want voice incorporated into those apps.

Much of the above growth potential will be predicated on the technology behind voice assistants continuing to improve. 2015 saw enormous advancements in the underlying technology, and with all the major tech giants investing heavily in this space, that progress is unlikely to slacken. The market research company Technavio released a report last month predicting the global voice-controlled market to grow at nearly an 8 per cent CAGR through 2020. We’re at a pivotal moment in this technology; it will be fascinating to watch how things unfold over the next few quarters.

Tim Tuttle, CEO and founder of MindMeld

Tim Tuttle
MindMeld CEO and founder Tim Tuttle started his career at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, where he received his PhD. Tim has also served on the research faculty at MIT as well as Bell Laboratories.