Apple’s anticipated addition to the Smart Speaker conversation will be released on Friday. Much as been said about this speaker and the broader commerce implications resulting from the confluence of voice recognition and AI technology. A confluence dubbed as conversational commerce by Uber’s Chris Messina in a piece published on Medium in 2015.

What’s New?

But how fresh is this conversation? And how different is conversational commerce from the mobile commerce conversations tech enthusiasts where having in the early 2000s?

A decade ago many customers would not consider m-commerce or m-payments, now – for many – our behaviours have changed. But the biggest barriers to m-commerce adoption for the laggards still remain the same: fear. History tell us this is nothing new, with the advent of the pen, the typewriter and the newspaper causing similar stirs. Fearing such innovations as killing the art of conversation. I do not fear these innovations, but I fear the same tech-led conversations.

Conversational Commerce is Another Choice

The confluence of voice recognition and AI is another tech-led innovation to add to the broader touchpoint toolkit businesses have to serve customers today. Sure these smart speakers are providing virtual storefronts (via AI assistants) in our living rooms, that require less effort than picking up our phones and clicking once or twice. But it’s not going to supersede it immediately; it’s just another moment of choice. Do I interact with an app platform via phone, a website platform via my laptop or an AI platform via my speaker?

Who cares?! This is simple contemporary commerce, range of interaction choices. Surely it’s more interesting to think about potential problems that could be resolved and pitfalls that another technological advancement could pose.

People’s Perception of the Problem

What do you think, is ‘Conversational Commerce’ technology looking for a problem or can it actually fix people’s problems? Our commerce expectations are rising at a rapid rate, largely thanks to the smartphones in our pockets. Now, in a bid to take control of homes (and our wallets), Google, Amazon and (on Friday) Apple have an extra physical touchpoint – the Smart Speaker – to deliver their AI assistant platforms, Alexa , Google Assistant and Siri. I’m guilty, I’ve pre-ordered an Apple Home Pod, and I’ll tell you why I did in a moment.

Despite the grand statements and confusing combination of proposed use cases, ranging from checking the weather to playing DJ and Trivia TV host, most of us are struggling to find a meaningful use case for these speakers and more importantly the AI platforms that sit behind them. In Creative Strategies 2017 survey, they found that more than half of early adopters of Amazon’s Echo speakers had not increased their usage of the devices, with 22 percent using them less over time — even as the range of “skills” or apps has grown. The survey also found that the single most popular use for Alexa was not shopping or controlling smart-home devices but something much more basic: setting an alarm. Wow, look how far we’ve come.

Taking the conversation back to the smartphone, the award-winning filmmaker and spoken word artist Gary Turk certainly felt there is a bigger problem as he eloquently elaborated in his film Look up, “All this technology we have is just an illusion, community, compassion and sense of inclusion. When you step away from these devices of delusion, you awaken to see a world of confusion.”

Ironically, the problem is staring some of us in the face 150 times a day – our Smart Phone Screens  – conversational interfaces could save us from our last interaction innovation, the touch-screen, the conversational killer of our era. I’m certainly hoping to have a screen-less music experience this weekend. Replacing my Sonos System with the Apple Home Pod, a clear music consumption use case that places the superior sound at the core of the proposition, sans-screen. This will, of course, open the door to the AI enable interactions and potentially pose new behaviour problems…

Potential Behavioural Pitfalls

Technology has driven many less-than-beneficial behaviours, from television screens dictating the layout of many people’s living rooms – rather prioritising the positioning of people to aid more convivial contexts – to smartphone screens driving depression and anxiety.

Today, we’re already seeing signals of potential behaviour pitfalls for smart speakers and AI agents. Journalists have shared their amusing but also alarming anecdotes of their children’s relationships with AI assistants. From bad manners – ‘Siri Shut up’ – to more sinister scenarios. So when a child starts asking an AI agent how old it is, it is quite an interesting indicator of the emotional attachment that is being felt. A scenario that was beautifully explored in the movie ‘Her’ and a consideration that was explored in the MIT study of the impact of AI agents on children age 3—10 years old.

Sure, kids will ‘understand’ later, but what damage will already be done? We are only now starting to realise the impact smartphones are having on impairing creativity, learning, and reducing our brain power.

Let’s Truly Understand Our Today to Design a Better Future

As William Gibson stated, ‘the future is already here it is just not evenly distributed’. So surely there are bigger questions to ask ourselves today, than what are the new use case and services opportunities. Sure, I can place an order after uttering a few more syllables than Alexa, but what problem is that really solving?

Instead, let us ask ourselves some bigger questions:

  • What are the behaviour paradigms we’d like to bust?
  • What should be the ethical considerations for new service platforms?
  • How could create more empathic, engaging and memorable moments with people?
  • How can we reconsider environments to encourage better person-to-person interactions?

In an era when ‘75% of us expect brands to make more of a contribution to our wellbeing and quality of life, yet only 40% believe brands are doing so’, imagine the commercial upside if we crack the code of some of these questions.

According to the recent Meaningful Brands report by Havas, brands that do respond to these emotional customer needs have benefited from an ‘increased share of wallet by up to nine times!

Rather than repeating the same technology led conversations we had for M-commerce, M-payments and screen-based interactions on-the-move, at home and in branded environments. Surely our time would be better spent focusing on envisioning customer and commercial scenarios first, before aimlessly deploying the technology. Here’s to a new decade of ‘looking up’ and engaging more meaningfully with people, products and places.

By Alex Bradley

About the author

Alex is fascinated by the future and what it means for businesses, brands, products, and people. As a Senior Consultant at Fahrenheit 212, Alex connects the dots between insights, opportunities, and execution. He loves to help companies understand their customers, their future context, and opportunities for innovation and has delivered innovation and product strategies, both as a consultant and client, spanning physical and digital products, geographies and sectors.

Twitter: @alexbradleyLDN

Featured image via Yayimages.