A popular genre of YouTube videos sees baffled, frustrated children trying to use old Gameboys and iPods as if they have a touchscreen—prodding and poking to little effect. Those same kids will be just as confused on their first day at the office, when their computers don’t talk back.
It’s easy to dismiss voice UI as a gimmick if you don’t use it, or if you see it as merely a novelty. Many people only ever speak to their smartphone to set timers for cooking, or perhaps go as far to ask their Alexa device to play music. With years of practice using a mouse and keyboard—and a little less of using a touchscreen—these tools remain the default when performing pretty much any task.
But even if you don’t use voice UI very often, it’s important to realise that those growing up with will be far more comfortable using it. Social norms play a big part here. Many people feel awkward talking to someone who isn’t real, and even more so when in public. But if those around you don’t feel like a total dork talking to Siri or Alexa, the chances are that you won’t either. We’ve already seen this shift with hands-free calls. Now we assume that anyone having an animated conversation on their own is on the phone, whereas a decade ago we would have assumed they were crazy.
It’s also important to note that voice UI is most commonly used in the home, rather than on a smart device. According to Google, 72% of those who with a voice-activated speaker use it as part of their daily routine, checking the news, playing music, switching lights on and so on. As people get comfortable with speaking to their virtual assistants at home, there’s more chance they will use it outside of the home.
Follow the money
The big clue that voice UI is the next big thing is the investments being made. Not every investment by the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft makes its way to everyday use, of course, but it’s worth taking note when they all follow a trend. As well as the millions these companies have invested in developing voice recognition and intelligence, they have also moved to widen their application. Late last year, Amazon doubled the size of its Alexa fund to $200m, making more venture capital available for companies that adopt its assistant into their products. There has also been talk of a deal between Amazon and Microsoft to bring Alexa to PCs. These companies want their technology in the hands of consumers, and they’re willing to invest in others and collaborate to make this happen.
These big bets anticipate big returns. The virtual assistant industry is already worth around $1b, and will be worth ten times this in five years—and all these companies want a piece of the action.
Consumer use of voice UI may be inevitable, but what about businesses? Where can voice be part of the workplace? Why use voice in a busy office when, in all likelihood, you have a keyboard and mouse right in front of you?
Voice UI will likely make its way to workplaces through very specific uses and then, as it gains a foothold, people will rely on it more and more. Walking into a pre-booked meeting room and being able to say “start the meeting” could take the pain out of dialing into a conference call and sharing a presentation.
“Schedule a meeting on Tuesday” could get around the hassle of asking when participants are free and when meeting rooms are available. Tasks can be added to a to-do list with a quick voice command rather than switching away from the job at hand.
There are also applications specific to particular businesses. Voice UI is already gaining traction in the logistics sector where a hands-free way of interacting with a device fits far better with the necessary tasks. Similarly, catering and dentistry have both been mooted as areas where people could benefit greatly from being able to talk to a computer rather than using a mouse and keyboard.
Plus, there are the potential benefits for members of staff that find that voice simply makes their job easier. Voice UI could be the difference between someone being able to work in an office or not, whether that’s helping relieve repetitive strain injury (RSI), perform difficult parts of a job (or impossible with limited or no vision), or otherwise assist in a role.
Voice won’t take over
There’s some understandable cynicism around voice UI’s place in the enterprise. Many people can’t imagine it ever replacing the mouse and keyboard, and the idea of an open-plan office full of people yelling over one another in order to be heard by their devices is seen as absurd.
And that’s because it is absurd, and in reality, that will never happen. While many people will never need to open a terminal window, the mouse and keyboard has never fully replaced the command line, especially for many IT roles. Touchscreens are commonplace and make interacting with small handheld devices easy, but almost anyone who needs to write a long article would prefer a mouse and keyboard. The mouse didn’t kill the command line, the touchscreen didn’t kill the mouse, and voice won’t kill any other UI element. It’s an addition, albeit one that will come to be expected, rather than a novelty.
The risk of remaining speechless
Businesses don’t need to panic just yet—there are unlikely to be job applicants who will refuse to work for a company that doesn’t make regular use of voice UI for many years to come.
But there is an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and start making voice an option for your employees now. As it starts to gain traction, employees will have to switch how they use technology at home and how they use it work. By making this switch from “home mode” to “work mode” as seamless as possible, businesses can help their employees be as efficient as possible.
Voice UI is undoubtedly going to be a big part of how people interact with technology in the future. It’s already in smart devices, people are happily buying smart speakers—despite security fears—and it’s an idea familiar from years of science fiction. Businesses that want to make the best use of the next big change in UI should start now by welcoming Siri, Alexa, and Cortana to their workforce.
Dave Sobel is Senior Director, MSP Evangelism at SolarWinds MSP
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