Staying silent: Voice assistants and the need for trust

Key takeaways

  • Voice assistants promise hands-free convenience to consumers, but many are resisting due to a lack of trust.
  • Customers who have used voice assistants feel more comfortable with the technology and are more likely to invest in other connected devices.
  • Brands in the voice ecosystem, and the assistants themselves, need to focus on providing convenience and value to bring customers on board.

Who do you talk to when you want something?

Increasingly, consumers are turning to smart speakers and their voice assistants, such as Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa, to fulfil their needs.

Voice assistants have the potential to be a consumer’s best friend: personalised, user-friendly, unbridled from the mundane tasks of clicking and typing. Voice shopping in the US alone is expected to grow from US$2billion today to US$40 billion by 2020, and in the next four years, over half of US households will have a smart speaker.1 Just this year, Apple released its HomePod smart speaker, Google took over Amazon in the amount of speakers shipped in the first quarter and the rest of the world has jumped on board – with over 9 million smart speakers shipped, worldwide, from January to March.2

Yet despite these dizzying statistics, there are troubles ahead when it comes to the use of voice assistants and the uptake of other connected home devices. To reach the heights predicted, issues of trust will need to be overcome.

The connected home

PwC UK’s Connected Home 2.0 survey found that the number of people planning to buy a home smart device in the next two years more than doubled in the last two years. Looking at the use of smart devices for the home, such as energy meters, appliances, speakers, doorbells, smoke alarms and the like, over 2000 consumers were surveyed.

While 30% said they planned on buying a smart device, up from 14% in 2016, 52% still had no plans to buy. On the other side of the Atlantic, the PwC Consumer Intelligence Series survey Prepare for the voice revolution found another worrying dimension to add to the mix – while 18-24 year olds were adopting voice tech at a faster rate, they used it less than other demographics once they had purchased the device.

Once sold, they sell themselves

On the plus side, the UK study found that consumers saw more value in connected devices once they had purchased and used them. Their comfort with the technology doubled after purchase – despite the fact that only 1 in 5 believed it would have a positive impact on their lives before shelling out the money.

Indeed, those that buy smart home assistants are much more willing to buy other connected home devices, acting as a gateway to more connection and providing the central control. In the US, 80% of consumers that had used a voice assistant to shop for items were not only satisfied with the experience, but were happy to tell friends and family about it, trust the retailer and spend more money with them.

The problem then is mainly one of getting users to buy into the idea in the first place, and trust is at the core of the issue. As PwC’s CJ Bangah told VentureBeat, “the adoption numbers, the percentage of folks who have bought a voice device in the last year — I think in some ways it will speed up faster than we expect. But until the education gap is closed, until folks trust it, and until they’re consistently delivering in a reliable way, I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight”.3

Basic tasks are basically okay

PwC Australia’s Entertainment & Media Outlook 2018-22, noted that smart speakers in 2017 had enabled a “seamless integration of music into the home,” and Australians were jumping on the smart speaker bandwagon, with music the number one use for smart speakers.4 While that’s good for the music industry it also points to a truth of smart speaker/home assistant usage – consumers are mainly using devices for simple tasks, such as asking their speaker to play the latest chart topper.

In part, this is because consumers simply don’t know what the capabilities of their device are. Understanding what is connected or the right magic phrase that will make something happen is not necessarily intuitive, and as connected home devices join the fray, the sheer number of options available via their smart assistant is harder for people to wrap their heads around.

But arguably, the bigger hurdle is one of trust. Simple tasks, while admittedly easier, are also ones that consumers don’t mind ceding control of.

For actions such as completing a search, consumers are more than happy to use voice technology, with 71% preferring it over typing. The same is true for sending a text or email (available in certain countries). But when it comes to more complex tasks where a degree of choice or ambiguity is involved, such as shopping online, they still vastly prefer to shop via a physical store, mobile app or online.

Of the current smart-assistant adopters in the US, 50% had already used voice to make a purchase and 25% more are considering doing so in the future, but many of the items that have been purchased thus far are small and quick – things that don’t need to be seen to be chosen. Around 30% of users had purchased meals or groceries via their home assistant, but when it comes to clothing, that number dropped to 3%.

But more complex tasks are scary

When asked if they would consider buying things online in the future via voice, the numbers rise for all categories whether simple to complex, indicating that people want the convenience of voice shopping, but they simply don’t trust or believe in it as it currently stands.

“Consumers see voice assistants as the smarter, faster, and easier way to perform everyday activities. Yet, for more serious situations involving money […] consumers prefer what they already know and trust,” said Bangah.5

Nearly half of those who said they wouldn’t shop via a voice assistant surveyed in the US said that they did not trust the devices to get their orders right, or that they did not trust it for monetary transactions.

The unease felt by respondents around others in the house having access to their credit cards has already played out in the news, such as when a six year old girl in Texas was able to order a US$170 dollhouse and 4 pounds of cookies much to the surprise of her mother.6

This lack of trust is a barrier to purchasing. For people who have never used a voice assistant, 38% said they don’t want a device that is ‘listening’ to them and 28% were concerned about the privacy of their data/security.

Trust is key to visibility and use

Trust is an issue that needs to be overcome for voice assistants, and their subsequent drive of other connected home devices, to live up to their hype. If consumers cannot trust that their data, privacy or money is safe – from 3rd parties, and from others in the home – then the use of voice assistants for more complex tasks will not grow. Part of this trust will be built in the ease of which customers can communicate with devices and their commands understood.

For business though, this means, to put it bluntly, not being creepy. The way in which data is being used needs to be clear and transparent, with clear privacy policies and security measures. Second, there needs to be a focus on getting users on board via providing undeniable convenience – a priority, given that levels of comfort/trust skyrocket with use.

As a recent Strategy+Business article elaborates, brands within the voice technology ecosystem need to not just enable purchases, but support other parts of the shopping process – such as search, shopping list creation, customer service, reviews and delivery status updates. Customers want the convenience of voice assistants, and the businesses and technology that brings it to life best will gain loyal users.

As the visibility of brands quite literally disappears across these platforms, standing out to customers via trusted convenience will be critical to brand survival.