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What is Voice Tech and why should you care?

Published by Louise Corden on

What is Voice Tech and why should you care?

You might have heard some of the dizzying stats about voice tech –  but what is it, how much does it affect your organisation, and why should you care about voice tech?

Voice assistants — the collective term for the software including Alexa, Siri, Cortana and OK Google — are popular and growing.

Voice Assistant Installed Base 2019
Image courtesy of voicebot.ai

Voice Tech stats

Let’s start with the hype:

  • Amazon sold out of Echo Dots worldwide in their Black friday sale — and now say there are 100million Alexa enabled items worldwide
  • OK Google will be available on a billion devices by the end of January
  • The number of US households with access to a smart speaker was expected to reach 50% by the end of 2018, according to Voicebot.ai
  • Adoption rates for smart speakers are even higher than they were for smartphones when those first came out, according to Voicebot.ai
  • 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020, according to comScore
Explanation of how Alexa processes data. Modified from Amazon Web Services.
Explanation of how Alexa processes data. Modified from Amazon Web Services.

What is Voice tech?

More than being a very popular gimmick, Voicebot.ai — the leading website analysing voice tech — describe this as the next evolution of interaction with tech: from clicking on a PC, to touch on smartphones, to voice.

The most popular uses are those that naturally work best by voice, for example playing music, reading recipes and setting timers while you cook, telling rubbish jokes to entertain the kids.

In the same way that smartphone usage changed the way people interacted with devices, the best ‘skills’ — which is what you call apps for Alexa and other assistants — are adopted when they’re intuitive and relevant to how and where people will use them.

Most smart speakers are in shared family spaces: kitchens & living rooms. But people have access to virtual assistants via almost any smartphone or tablet; these are either inbuilt eg Siri on Apple devices, or via an app eg the Alexa App on any tablet.

Voice tech in charities

For charities they present a huge opportunity to connect to your audience in their homes and on the go.

Some charities have been quick to embrace voice, with Cancer Research UK launching their alcohol tracker last year, and British Red Cross launching First Aid, so you can say ‘Alexa, ask First Aid how to treat a nosebleed’.

The Breast Cancer Care ‘Taking care of your breasts’ guide for self examination is a great example of something that naturally works in this medium. There are step by step voice instructions for a task you need to use your hands for.

So I’m delighted to announce we’ve launched an NSPCC skill for Amazon Alexa.

It will help deliver our core purpose: keeping children safe, through playing the PANTS song & interactive voice game to help them learn their bodies belong to them.

This song and game existed in other formats as part of our PANTS campaign so it was a natural fit to move them to a voice medium. And because we couldn’t deliver services without income we’re also accepting donations through Alexa — becoming one of the first UK charities to do so.

What next for Voice tech?

It’s worth emphasising that voice tech is still emergent, with changes happening all the time, and Alexa crashing on Christmas day from unexpectedly high usage.

A stat reported by The Information last year suggested only 2% of Alexa owners had made purchases through their devices (although Amazon claimed this was inaccurate, and purchases were made by around 20% — I assume the latter number includes pre-purchase research).

This may be question of maturity: people were slow to start purchasing online initially too.

Or it might be about convenience: except for repeat items like groceries, people want to see or touch purchases.

Either way, it might be a shrewd move on Amazon’s part in October 2018 to allow charities to accept donations, and build trust in the eco-system. Time will tell.

Voice tech jargon buster

The phrase you use to open a skill on Alexa is made up of various constituent parts:

Our A-Z guide to the WTF of voice tech:

Alexathe personal assistant from Amazon. It’s the software you can access on Amazon Echo devices or on your own phone/tablet via the free Alexa App
Amazon PayAmazon’s payment checkout process. You can store details for one or more credit/debit cards. You use this when buying on their website or to make voice purchases or donations via Alexa
EchoSmart speakers made by Amazon. The hardware you can access Alexa through. The Echo range includes Dots (small speakers) and Shows (speakers including a screen).
Enablethe equivalent of downloading an app; how you access Alexa third party skills. Once you enable a skill in the Skills Store you can access it via Alexa
IntentThe name for the parts of the skill that people can activate, eg within the NSPCC skill ‘play the song’ and ‘make a donation’ are different intents
Invocation nameThe name for your skill. Ours is simply called “NSPCC”, but it doesn’t have to be your brand name eg we’ve also got “Parents versus Kids” as a game we created with O2, or there’s “First Aid” from British Red Cross. Eg say “Alexa, open NSPCC”
MultimodalThe addition of images or video to enhance your Alexa skill. This is especially useful when accessing Alexa via Echo devices with screens, eg a weather forecast showing you icons as well as reading out the temperature. Amazon have recently moved to a multimodal voice-first approach (see below).
Skillthe Alexa equivalent of an app. Like your smartphone comes with some native capabilities, Alexa can tell you the weather and lots more when you first switch her on, but if you want access to the best family games or book a train ticket you’ll need skills built by others
Skill storeequivalent to the App or Play Stores for apps. The place you go to enable Amazon Skills
Utterancethe words and phrases users say to Alexa that your skill will need to recognise eg “play the song” and “play the Pants song” are both utterances that will launch the same intent within the NSPCC
Voice-firstThe experiences Amazon want to create. When they first launched Alexa everything was done by voice, but they’ve since launched the Echo Show and other devices with screens, so they now aim for experiences to be voice-first, ie primarily by voice but complemented by screens (aka ‘multimodal’ – see above).
Voice assistantsthe collective term for the software including Alexa, Siri, Cortana and OK Google
Wake wordWhat you say to start making requests to a virtual assistant. ‘Alexa’ is Amazon’s by default but you can change it to ‘Computer’ or ‘Echo’

Where can I learn more about Voice Tech?

Want to learn more about Voice Tech?

Here are some other sources of info:

This article was originally published on the NSPCC Digital Team blog, The Digital Dunk.

Louise will be speaking at Fundraising Online 2019 (#FRO), a free virtual conference taking place on 12 & 13 June 2019. Sign up for #FRO 2019 here.


Louise Corden

Louise Corden

Louise is Lead Digital Producer at the NSPCC, where she manages all new technology used to accept donations and engage with supporters. She designed the NSPCC’s first Alexa skill and worked with their corporate partner 02 to create two additional skills for Amazon Alexa, making the NSPCC one of the first charities in Europe to accept donations, and one of the early adopters of voice technology. Her 10 years in the charity sector include organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Support and Copper Digital.

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