It seemed so appropriate to visit Austin, alive last week with SXSW chatter, to explore the cutting edge of voice technology.
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Among the plethora of panels, shows and workshops, I was out to understand the business opportunities and challenges that come with using chat interfaces.
"Conversational," "voice" and "chat" interfaces are catch-all terms used to refer to the next stage of human-technology interaction. Although tapping and swiping became the "new normal" means of interaction with mobile apps and devices, businesses are now shifting their services to a messaging format as a means of engaging users in a more natural way.
To identify businesses already making waves with this approach, check out the range of brand "skills" which have been added to Amazon’s Alexa since that product's launch. There is now even a lawyer chatbot on Facebook Chat, providing advice on parking tickets and asylum claims.
The big opportunity for businesses to win with this technology lies with how well it succeeds in making their customer interactions more personable and intuitive. Thus, seamless and enjoyable interactions are likely to keep customers coming back to the brands that do this technology well.
But, as with most new tech, the "how" is more complex than the "why."
Currently, you can create conversational interfaces in two ways. The first way is to piggyback on to existing tech (by adding your services to Alexa’s ever-growing skillset). The second is to add voice interfaces to your own platform (as with Santander’s voice banking feature). For either option, success depends on more than a simple plug-and-play approach.
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Twenty years ago, any business leader worth his or her salt had nailed down a brand strategy. But today, that kind of focus has shifted; today, it must be devoted to chat strategy: meaning, how to use conversational interfaces to add value to your business.
So what is the right approach? And what issues should businesses tackle to make it a reality? Here are my three key considerations:
Security and privacy: Know where you stand.
Voice recognition and facial recognition are emerging as powerful, easy-to- use solutions for personal or sensitive services. HSBC, Barclays and First Direct are offering voice recognition to some of their customers already. MasterCard rolled out its facial recognition tech last year.
But there are risks, as the current debate over the use of biometric data has shown. This was reflected at SXSW, with a debate between Christopher Piehota, director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, and privacy activist Cory Doctorow. Their session highlighted fundamental issues around the collection, storage and use of personal data. When bespoke services need more data from their users, how safe is that data? Who has access? And why?
We have yet to see government legislation on biometric data storage. But in a privacy-sensitive climate, the rule of thumb is to be sparing in the data you collect, and thorough with its encryption.
To walk in their shoes, tap new talent.
Successful communication in any arena depends on empathy. Reading your audience members’ needs and motivations, then tailoring your interactions with them, is instinctive for us as humans. But that process represents the next benchmark for conversational interfaces.
Making automated responses more human, more nuanced and more useful for users will shape the next wave of chatbots and voice assistants. But there is still a way to go before we get to "true" conversation. Author and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted in his SXSW talk that that advance won't happen until 2029.
Sophie Kleber, executive director of product and innovation at Huge, recommended that designers and writers work on conversational interfaces and focus on psychology. They need to become more familiar with what goes on for people "behind" the surface dialogue, she said.
But judging whether a dash of humor there would be welcomed or met with a stony silence can be a tricky call even for humans — can it be programmed? Part of Kleber's solution to this dilemma, she said, entails understanding when a service has "permission" to connect with users.
The solution requires our human resources capabilities to merge with those of machines. In practice, that means tapping the talents of comedians, theater directors and poets alongside those of designers and programmers.
Technologist John Maeda (head of computational design and inclusion at Automatic) underlined this need when he presented the third annual Design In Tech report at SXSW. He called on designers to “love their copywriters and content strategists," in order to take full advantage of language as an interface.
Delight in diversity.
Using creative talent to humanize automated interfaces is important. But if those new faces all look, think or behave alike, the result might still fall short. This was the crux of Maeda's other key point: We need to reflect our audience in our workforce.
That makes complete business sense. After all, your investment into voice interfaces will pay off only if it benefits your users. The problem is that as the user-base for conversational interfaces grows, it's less likely to match a typical design team.
Related: At Last, Customer Service Agents That Customers Can't Drive Crazy.
So, draw on diverse backgrounds to ensure that you're not simply adopting new technology for its own sake, but as a tool to meet the needs of your customers. That was some of the wisdom I got at this year's SXSW.