Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Assistant are just the beginning: Voice is the future

CIO Strategies: Four ways to explore the use of voice technology for your business.

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Devices like the Amazon Echo could be just the beginning when it comes to voice controlled devices.

Image: Chris Monroe/CNET

The consumer IT giants -- such as Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft -- have all invested heavily in voice technology. Analyst Gartner estimated two years that 30 percent of our interactions with technology will be through 'conversations' with smart machines by 2018. So, should CIOs start planning for voice as the next-generation user interface? ZDNet spoke to four executives who suggest four best practice tips for IT decision makers analysing the potential of voice technology.

1. Start exploring your options

Former CIO turned digital advisor Ian Cohen is convinced by the power of voice as the next big UI. However, the tipping point remains some way in the distance and Cohen believes experts are leading people to over-hype the status of voice control.

"People are being misled by things like Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant, and Alexa, which are still very much first-generation products -- clever but still first-generation clever," he says. "Too many of these technologies still can't go beyond single-threaded conversations and into multi-threaded conversations with even basic context."

The good news is that Cohen believes these advancements will be made -- eventually. Executives must now think about both the limitations of voice-controlled interfaces and how their organisations can make the most of a fast-developing technology. "You need to work out the appropriate point of interface for voice," says Cohen.

"Voice interface isn't a replacement, it's an addition -- and it has to be a context-specific and situationally-relevant addition. There are certain moments in life where you need an immediate action or response and you can't afford the UI to just come back with more questions, saying it's sorry but it didn't understand your question."

2. Find a great business use case

Martin Draper, technology director at luxury retailer Liberty, also believes voice could be the next big user interface. In fact, his company is already making strides in that direction: the firm uses voice-controlled software to help with warehouse picking.

Staff are issued with headsets and a microphone. A voice-controlled application from Voiteq interfaces with the firm's enterprise resource planning system. The voice-controlled app issues commands to a central server about which products should be picked. The system also works on a two-way basis, issuing confirmation about which goods have been selected.

"We're quite up to speed with the value of voice," says Draper. "The warehouse picking system works well and there's no reason for us to move away to the more traditional handheld approach."

In fact, Draper is keen to investigate how advanced digital technology might be used across the business. "I'm a massive fan of voice," he says. "I use voice-controlled technology at home and I think it really should be viewed as the interface of the future."

3. Find great partners quickly

Peter Markey is former CMO of Aviva and has recently been appointed marketing director at TBS Bank. At Aviva, the company created an insurance skill -- which is like an app for a smartphone -- for Amazon Echo that allows users to ask questions about insurance and to translate jargon associated to the industry.

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"That was quite a smart thing to do," says Markey. "I think the technology is potentially brilliant. Brands need to wake up to that potential right now. They need to work out which technology companies they'll be partnering with and they need to do that quickly."

Markey envisages further developments in the future. A consumer at home, for example, might be reminded by Alexa that their car insurance is expiring soon and might ask the system to find a quote. The customer might have some element of brand loyalty and be concerned that the quote comes from their existing insurer. Equally, the consumer might be more interested in the cheapest possible quote and might be prepared to break previous brand loyalties. Markey says executives must take note.

"It becomes very interesting when consumers start relying on voice-activated systems for their decision making. That creates an issue for big companies. I can see a world where disaggregation becomes real and some consumers simply feel as if they're buying services, like insurance, from their voice-activated technology," says Markey.

"Brands must wake up and think about where they fit into this new ecosystem. There will probably be a VHS or Betamax moment where only certain voice-activated systems survive. Every executive needs to think about how voice-activated technology connects up, how the standards are being used by different companies and which ecosystem will best meet your business and customer needs."

4. Think about embedding voice in your business processes

Andy Day, chief data officer at retail giant Sainsbury's, has a personal view on the role of voice -- and he believes the UI has big potential. "You see the advent of technologies like Amazon Echo, which I have a couple of at home, and you start to see how there's a distinction between a technology that aids a process and something that is generally going to create a step change in your ability to do something like shop," he says.

Day believes embedding voice in everyday processes is what will bring it to life for businesses, especially in a sector like retailing. Voice activation technology is currently defined by its various proprietary flavours. Like Markey, Day thinks there will eventually be a coming together of the technologies.

"If you're a big business, and you want to add a skill to a voice-activated system, the smart element will be when the technology knows that you always order a particularly type of product or that it asks about subtle variations in specification, such as colour and size," he says.

Like some of his peers, Day believes voice has big potential -- but he also suggests the tipping point for the UI remains distant for now. "I don't think we're there yet, but we will get there."

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