The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

The Open Voice Network: Working To Make Voice Technology Trustworthy

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Earlier this year, I highlighted one of the key findings of RSR’s January 2022 on the state of Ecommerce in retail in a Retail Paradox Weekly column entitled “Why Your E-Commerce Application Probably Needs To Be Replaced”, that made the case that tomorrow’s Ecommerce platforms need to have the flexibility to adopt new “front end” user interfaces (UI’s) just as fast as consumers adopt them in their daily lives. Although the article (and the benchmark report that it quoted) didn’t focus on any particular new UI, one bit of unpublished data showed that voice is one that is starting to get retailers’ attention:

Typically, when we ask TOP THREE questions in our surveys, we start to pay attention when more than a third of retailer respondents say something is important. In this case, we could already see that over-performers (“Winners”) were starting to focus on voice, while average and under-performers (“Others”) were less concerned or aware. 

Of course, other new UI’s are just around the corner: streaming video, virtual reality, “meta”.  But voice is already here – in fact, you probably have a voice device in your home right now. According to some studies, about 40% of American households own a “smart speaker”, whether it’s Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple Siri, or something else. And, as consumers we’ve all interacted with old-school IVR (integrated voices response) systems over the phone, or have yelled at a natural language chatbot to get to the service department we want to talk to at the bank.

So ready or not, voice UI’s are real. But it’s still the Wild West when it comes to the technologies, and questions come up, like (1) are the different technologies interoperable?, (2) are they any good?, and (3) what happens to the data generated from a voice interaction – is it secure and will our privacy be protected? 

It is questions like these that led me to call on an industry colleague, Jon Stine, Executive Director of Open Voice Network (OVON). OVON is an organization that is dedicated to “the communal development and adoption of industry standards and usage guidelines, industry education and advocacy initiatives, and the development and documentation of voice-centric value propositions”. 

OVON: At The Right Place & The Right Time

Jon explained the Open Voice Network this way: “we’re dedicated to the development and proposal of three things: technical standards for the emerging world of voice assistants, the ethical-use guidelines for voice data, and the third thing is the redefinition of the value of voice for the enterprise – value that is increasingly found away from proprietary Big Tech ‘smart speakers’. We want to uncover the ways in which natural language understanding and natural language generation can create business value. So: open technical standards, ethical use guidelines, and business value propositions, for commerce, media and entertainment, health and wellness – a huge area! – and K-12 education.”

OVON is working with two operative focus points: first, it’s all about data (not devices) – who owns it, who uses it; and secondly, that voice is as much about listening as it is about speaking. “In fact, I would say that that the part of this iceberg that is below the water line is the listening part – and that’s the extraordinarily valuable part and the part that enterprises consistently miss, especially when we talk about customer service”, explained Jon.

Jon further emphasized OVON’s ethical-use objective: “our advisors have told us that voice data is the second-most data revealing data source, after the human genome”. He explained that voice can reveal details from the mundane (sex, age, ethnicity, emotion) to increasingly esoteric attributes, like level of education, early signs of Parkinson’s disease, or whether the speaker is being honest. Natural language capabilities tied to machine learning can “train” the system to tune an automated response.  In fact, Jon mentioned that some stock analysts are using these kinds of analysis tools to listen in on quarterly investor calls, to determine if the presenters are telling the truth! The precision with which these technologies can determine facts about callers leads directly to the need for ethical use standards – a particular focus for OVON.

Real Use Cases For VA

A more benign use is simply to identify a known customer very quickly so that all the pertinent information needed can be brought to bear on a concern a customer might have. Jon shared some recently published data from a recent study conducted on behalf of the London-based Vixen Labs and the OVON by UK research company Delineate. The study queried over 2000 consumers in the US, UK, and Germany. The first finding is surprising: 36% of US respondents said that they use voice assistants (VA) daily, with 39% of UK respondents and 32% of German respondents agreeing.

By country, the leading VA is Amazon Alexa (US: 34%, UK: 46%, and Germany: 31%). In the last year alone, Alexa use increased 6 points in the US and 8 points in the UK. Behind Alexa are Siri and Google Assistant. The difference between Alexa and Siri and Google Assistant is that Alexa is typically used via an Amazon-proprietary device, whereas both Siri and Google Assistant are accessed via a consumer’s mobile phone.

According to the research, in the US, “Search engines, weather checks and music are the most popular reason to use VAs, with over a third doing these activities regularly. More people reported making a purchase using a voice assistant in 2022 than the previous year, this suggests that there is an increasing ease with purchasing via a voice assistant.” In the UK, “Playing music is the largest reason to voice activated technology with over 2 in 5 doing this regularly. Almost half of current users are searching for information on products and services with somewhat regularity.”

The research has particularly useful guidance for retailers. The top five use cases for VAs are to “track the location of a package”, “check shipping and delivery information”, “search for information about a product or service” (“do you have it, in what store, and at what price?”, according to Jon), “finding answers to common questions”, and “confirm my order”.

Probably to no one’s surprise, the top concerns are “privacy and trust”.

What Stands In The Way? Who Is Helping?

 These value points all sound exciting, and so it would be forgivable if you (like me) were to think that retailers are jumping all over the value propositions that OVON has identified.  So, what stands in the way?  Said Jon, “the biggest obstacle is a set of preconceptions created by the general purpose Big Tech voice platforms, and to a lesser extent by IVR”.  The standards group strives to stress that open standards would free retailers from proprietary devices, and (perhaps more importantly) wouldn’t tie all the data capture and analysis to Big Tech voice services. 

With that in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that when I asked Jon about notable retailers that are supporting OVON, the first name he mentioned was Target. As some might remember, the Minneapolis retailer very visibly parted ways with Amazon back in 2011 (it was reported in 2019 that Target uses Google Cloud and Walmart has reportedly told its tech vendors to stop using AWS). So, from a purely competitive stance, it makes sense that the retailer would promote an open standard.

Another US retailer that advises OVON is Wegmans, one of the most forward thinking grocers in the world. A third supporter is Germany’s Schwarz Group, a company whose brands include Lidl (which entered the US market in 2015 and currently has 150 stores) and Kaufland ( a German hypermarket chain).

Join In On The Conversation

There are few retailers that doubt that voice assistants will be a popular UI for consumers – if not now, then in the very near future.  But as OVON’s Jon Stine pointed out, there are both opportunities and risks associated with its adoption – and almost all of those are associated with the data. For that reason alone, retailers should look into joining the Open Voice Network community. As Jon said, “we are open to all opinions, and all participation.”

The industry has repeatedly had to re-learn the value of open standards; after all, it was open standards that led to the commoditization of point-of-sale systems in the 1990’s and standardization of the “retail data model” that was the underpinnings of many store systems for over two decades. 

OVON is trying to accomplish the same goals, but in relation to the technical standards, ethical use guidelines, and business value propositions, associated with voice. Now is a good time to add your voice to the conversation.

Newsletter Articles June 30, 2022
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