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What we can learn from Siri and Alexa

amazon-echoArtificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilisation a billion-fold.

Ray Kurzweil

Voice activation and virtual assistants are taking the tech world by storm. At the recent CES (consumer electronics show) in Las Vegas, all talk was around the ‘smart home’ with Amazon’s voice activation tool ‘Alexa’ as the central tool for many house name brands from Whirlpool to Volkswagon.

All the major tech companies – Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon – are pouring an incredible amount of resources into their new voice assistants like Siri, or Alexa. However for many consumers, talking to technology still feels a little odd.

A recent study by Creative Strategies sparked our interest for today’s column. Their research has demonstrated that consumers have been willing to give the technology a chance with 98 per cent of iPhone users trying Siri, but the habit has not stuck for the average user.

The interest is there; 70 per cent of iPhone users say they use Siri only sometimes or rarely, but nearly everyone’s tried it. Only two per cent of Amercian iPhone owners have never used Siri according to the study.

Android users are similar, with 62 per cent saying they use ‘Ok Google’ only infrequently, but a mere four per cent of Android owners say they have never used OK Google at all.

And there are certainly many positives as Macworld UK discovered when they asked their twitter database their thoughts on Siri et al. Positive feedback for the tools included;

  • Siri is at its best when performing small but potentially fiddly and often-repeated tasks. Perfect for reminders, alarms, calendar events etc because it cuts a longer route to set them up manually.
  • Saves time typing long search terms, emails and messages
  • Handy in the car
  • Handy when walking or running
  • Great for quick dialling
  • Accessibility advantages – voice activation is brilliant for those with physical and visual disabilities – anyone who struggles to make out the details on menus, may find it much easier to launch apps and dictate messages using their voice.
  • It’s fun! It’s a boredom buster and there are lots of amusing hidden answers to discover – and consequently is loved by kids.
  • As a replacement for human companionship? Potentially! One tweeter used Siri “…so people think I have a friend.”

There are a lot of positives there which directly meet the needs and wants of our time poor digital society; so, what’s stopping this tool being completely adopted into our daily lives?

The major pain point when it comes to voice activation technologies such as Siri, is ‘context’. People actually tend to prefer voice assistants when they’re alone, like in a car or at home. 62 per cent of iPhone owners use Siri in the car. But 20 per cent of consumers who said they have never used a voice assistant said it was because they feel uncomfortable talking to their tech in public. Only three per cent of people use Siri in public or in front of others. “With public usage as low as 3 per cent for iPhone users, it seems users are still uncomfortable talking to their devices” according to Creative Strategies.

We can now see why the focus of Amazon’s attention is directing Alexa at the smart home – an environment that will incubate and grow the adoption of their tool, taking into account this major pain point that has affected the growth and adoption of voice activation in other sectors.

So how does this affect us as retailers? We need to translate this research and think about what we can learn about human/consumer behaviour from these results. The adoption of voice activation tools in private homes has shown that consumers seek and value the ease, efficiently and time that is saved by these tools. They also seek fun experiences that they can share and will respond positively to something that delights and surprises them. The lack of adoption of these tools in public environments, suggests that consumers will actively avoid taking the easier option if it’s going to draw attention to themselves or there is a chance they’ll be embarrassed. They feel most comfortable when communicating privately.

This understanding is highly valuable when translated into store design, operations and overall retail strategy. Having an understanding of consumer confidence and emotion in store, their pain points and key drivers enables a retailer to provide a truly customer-centric experience and see significant impact on brand adoption and loyalty.

Also these results suggest that your consumer may interact with you very differently when in the privacy of their own home via your online channels, to when they’re in your bricks and mortar store which is a public environment. Consequently your omnichannel strategy, while providing a seamless transition between online and offline may want to reflect this.

When exploring insights led strategy, it’s not only the factual data that is key. Exploring the context of this data, unpicking it further to gain insights into human behaviour and learning from the emotional drivers, behaviours and personalities that have led to this data, will ensure you reach a more profitable, powerful and truly customer-centric retail solution.

Vikki Weston, co-author of this column, is part of Retail Doctor Group’s Retail Insights team and can be contacted via email at

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