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A Retailer’s Guide To Voice Tech and Conversational Design

Conversation Design
Technology, Information and Media

With smart speakers and voice assistants driving new purchasing habits, retailers can’t tune out the increasing volume of conversation. Consumers are increasingly drawn to voice capabilities, whether they are talking to their mobile device or to the smart speaker on their kitchen counter for direct, natural experiences. Voice assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s Assistant are making powerful changes in the way people approach retail experiences.

Awareness of how conversation design fits into the retail landscape is increasingly important. But determining whether it’s the right option for your product and/or service goals is equally paramount. How to kick-start conversation design, and what to expect in terms of results, is worth investigation.

Why Smart Speaker Technology is Worth a Look

According to Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business, “A third of all computing will be screenless by 2020.”

As of August 2018, 32% of U.S. consumers own a smart speaker, according to Adobe Analytics, and that percentage is expected to reach 48% after this 2018 holiday season.

The Washington Post predicts that globally, about 100 million smart speakers will be in use.

Tech that organically taps into human behavior to solve for consumer wants/needs, wins. At this point, city-dwelling Amazon Prime members can tell Alexa what they want from Whole Foods, and the items are delivered within two hours. This intuitive connection enables brands to meet customers’ needs, wherever they happen to be.

Taking Frictionless Shopping a Step Further

The presence of seamless tech serving as an effortless backdrop to your shopping experience (aka “ambient computing) smoothes the path to purchase. In fact, NPR reports 57% of smart speaker owners have used the device to order an item, and of those shoppers, 58% purchased an item they had never before bought.

Additionally, this research indicates that smart speaker users are more at home with speech-enabled shopping from any device. For example, once people acquire smart speakers for their homes and engage with them, they are more likely to use the voice assistants on their smartphones.

Technical and Financial Challenges

Like implementing any other technology, voice-enabled shopping for retail businesses has its challenges. To overcome these hurdles, larger context around trends and capabilities is necessary.

Smart Speaker Shopping is Still on a Learning Curve

Rapid acceptance, on a broad scale, of smart speakers is undeniable. But shopping is not currently considered a primary use for voice assistants. Right now, the most frequent interactions users have with their smart speakers include:

  • Playing music
  • Checking the weather
  • Asking “fun” questions
  • Performing searches
  • Checking news
  • Making a call
  • Asking directions
  • Issuing smart home commands
  • Interacting with calendars and schedules
  • Checking sports scores

Although surveys show that anywhere from 30-57% of smart speaker owners use their devices for shopping, it’s still considered an emerging use case. The reasoning behind this might, in part, be more of an app issue than a voice capability question.

A Lag in Voice App Download and Retention

Amazon and Google report that the rate at which people download and retain voice apps is still low. This indicates both a need for more information around and higher expectations for this kind of seamless technology. If a user downloads a skill or voice app for their smart speaker that isn’t instantly gratifying and simple, they are quick to delete it.

The retention rate for voice apps, one week after first use, only averages about 3%, versus 11-13% for other mobile apps. However, the desire to adopt and build upon this technology in general, is undeniable. NPR reports:

81% of smart speaker owners are open to skills and features created by brands on smart speakers.

Let’s Talk About Brand

“Alexa, buy paper towels.” But what kind of paper towels? Unless the consumer has a powerful loyalty to a brand, they are likely to make purchasing decisions on the basis of function and category. If a brand isn’t mentioned, or the customer doesn’t have a personalized profile within Amazon or the store app, it’s possible that an algorithm will automatically provide whichever product generates the highest margin.

Marketing Week notes that, with speech-enabled shopping, there is “significant reduction in the use of brand names to make an order. The category is back, and the implications for marketing are stupendous.” This is especially relevant for fast-moving consumer goods, where customers are accustomed to making rapid decisions based on their visual recognition of packaging.

Is Voice-Enabled Shopping Right for Your Brand?

So is voice a capability that makes sense for your brand? Just because general adoption is on the rise, doesn’t mean you must immediately invest resources for the sake of keeping up with the tech trend. Trying to fit tech into a space where it doesn’t solve for a need quite often ends in a failure to launch.

When it comes to emerging technology and business solutions, further investigation and asking the right questions is never a bad idea. Here are a few to start the user discussion:

Are your customers mobile transactors?

Two thirds of users access voice assistants on mobile phones. If you don’t have the data around this, it’s worth considering a survey for your current customer base to determine their level of mobile usage–and whether they access your brand from their mobile device.

Do your customers have children?

This isn’t a make-or-break requirement, of course, but households with children are more likely to leverage voice assistants to help accommodate multi-tasking. It also doesn’t hurt to consider how much children love to interact with smart speakers to play music, ask questions, etc.

What is the linguistic breakdown of your customers?

If you have a significant customer base among non-native English speakers, you may benefit from waiting until the natural language processing technology has become a mainstay capability. At this point, the overall accuracy rate of all smart speakers when understanding non-native English speakers is about 80%, according to research published in the Washington Post.

How to Successfully Implement Voice Shopping

Conversation design technology offers unique potential for increasing traffic and conversions, but only if you have it optimized for your particular business structure. Your marketing and advertising, behind the scenes, have to be fine-tuned to maximize investment.

Fortunately, innovation partners can provide planning and solutions for businesses considering or investing in voice capabilities. Combining UX best practices and tech delivery, here are a few points that you and your innovation and internal teams should consider:

  • Do not assume voice will replace text searches: We can envision a world where computing by voice is king, but we’re certainly not there yet. Users still rely heavily on manual searches to answer questions.
  • Tie into current voice use trends: If the majority of customers are using voice assistants to listen to music, or podcasts, you may want to activate your brand through sponsorship of audio content.
  • Incorporate a educational component: 72% of users in an Ad Age survey say they don’t know enough about their smart speakers to take full advantage. A great way to reinforce your brand is to provide user-friendly content around how to access your Alexa Skill, Google Action or voice app.
  • Cover your bases with invocation phrases: Users can find your Skill or Action on a directory by using an “invocation phrase.” Craft these phrases carefully, avoiding words that have multiple pronunciations, and provide at least ten invocation phrases for your action.
  • Own the customer relationship: Work with your innovation partner to make sure your voice app is connected with your users’ Google accounts. It’s important to have data showing records of their purchase patterns and brand preferences.

Conversation Will be an Ongoing Discussion

Smart speakers are not only used when you’re out of butter or paper towels. NPR research found that 24% of shoppers who use smart speakers spent $100 to $199 on a single purchase, and another 30% spent $50 to $99. Furthermore, owners of Amazon Echo speakers spend an annual average of $1700 annually, which is 66% higher than the average Amazon customer.

These numbers, and the research around voice UX, are just the beginning. The fact remains that simple is better, and that’s exactly what conversation design looks to deliver in new, exciting, and intuitive ways through smart speakers, voice apps, and more. When “just talking” or “thinking aloud” begins to sound more like a shopping list, life gets easier for consumers, and new doors open for retail brands.

Molly Gardner

Molly Gardner worked at Mutual Mobile as the Director of Marketing.

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