“Siri, what’s the best way to get our organization ready for voice-activated tools?”
From Amazon’s Alexa to Google’s voice-activated assistant, voice-powered tools are changing the way we interact with devices. ZDNet has predicted that by the end of 2018, 30% of all device interactions will be voice-powered — and that number is only expected to climb. Users can reorder office supplies, play music or check the weather with a single question. Culturally, as mobile phones have become essential, users have embraced the ease of asking a quick question to find a nearby restaurant or simply dictate a text message.
However, voice-activated tools are increasingly coming to the office and other parts of the business world. From a new class of dictation software platforms to an entire generation of voice-powered productivity tools, voice activation is changing the way companies look at user interfaces and manage business processes.
Preparing for natural language processing and other key components of a voice-powered world has created an important work stream for companies. Over time, voice-based tools will make teams and organizations more effective — impacting both the employee and customer experience. Here’s a closer look at the steps organizations can take now to make sure they’re ready to make the most of these important tools.
Beyond the Screen: The Reality of the Voice-Activated Interface
From computer screens to touch screens, the ways users have interacted with devices has rapidly evolved in the last several years. The idea of the interface has now moved “beyond the screen” and into the world of sound. As TechCrunch notes, “The interface is evolving. What has long been dominated by screens of all shapes and sizes is now being encroached upon by the voice.” Until recently, voice-activation has largely been the province of individual users and smart homes.
New advances, such as Amazon for Business, are quickly suggesting that the voice-powered office of tomorrow is becoming a reality today. Amazon’s Alexa tool comes with “skills.” Developers can create custom skills that complete tasks such as sending a user error report to IT when a printer issue occurs, or accessing different types of stored data. The intelligent algorithms that underlie the software will make routine processes simpler. For example, if you are reordering office supplies that have many variations and you always select a specific model, it’ll be easier to auto-select your preference. A voice-activated interface offers busy workers the potential to quickly and easily complete a variety of tasks.
Embrace the Shifting Interface: A UI/UX Perspective
Organizations need to think in terms of interfaces on at least two levels. The first is as part of their own products or services; as users increasingly migrate to mobile and voice, do you offer the interface they need? A second use case, which is equally critical but discussed far less often, is preparing your workforce for voice-activated tools. There’s a continuum here that includes training and preparation to ensure workers make the most of the new tools and technologies you employ.
As one expert said in an interview with ZDNet, “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.”
Define Your Use Cases and Think About Business Processes
Voice will impact your business — in terms of workflow — on two key levels. The first is individual technologies that assist workers in being more efficient. These might include dictation, voice search and interacting with PCs and mobile devices to complete routine tasks. Organizations that stop there are missing out on the potential of leveraging voice-powered productivity at scale.
One organization highlighted by ZDNet used voice-powered tools in their warehouse for picking orders. Workers could tell the system what they needed for a specific order, and it would also verbally confirm which items had been selected. TechCrunch suggests other possibilities: “Just as developers can build skills for Amazon Echo users, businesses can now build out Alexa skills for use within their own company. You could imagine voice access to an employee directory, Salesforce data on various clients and accounts, or company calendar information.”
CEB Global notes that one company has developed a voice-activated module to act as a health care and other insurance benefits assistant, and to help with tasks such as open enrollment. Urgenci notes, “Tech giants like Google and Amazon are already experimenting with APIs that allow enterprise businesses to link their CRM and ERP systems to voice-activated controls. This grants users access to their company’s entire database of customer information and business data, all with a simple voice command.” Individual companies will have to evaluate and prioritize their internal workflows and look for the right partners and platforms to customize the voice-powered tools that make sense for their business.
Changing Information Architecture for Natural Language Processing
Another implication for voice search and voice interaction happens at the data layer. One of the first areas organizations have seen this in effect is in search engine optimization, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. That’s a shift from keywords to natural language processing. Historically, SEO has been organized around keyword searches. For example, if a user in Boston searched for a VoIP provider, they might open a search engine and input “VoIP Boston.” As users have migrated to mobile platforms, they’ve taken to more natural speech patterns. A user is more likely to ask a question such as “What’s the best Mexican restaurant near me?” or “What VoIP provider services my area of Boston?” In response, companies have begun to rethink the way they write, categorize data and deliver digital experiences — to ensure they can process both keyword searches and natural language processing opportunities.
For organizations that are preparing for voice-activation, it comes down to both information architecture and the data itself. Preparing for natural language processing often involves conducting an audit of current data structures. In some cases, it’s possible to simply recategorize information in a way that flows naturally with speech. In others, larger database architecture changes are necessary. Putting new policies into place, as well as evaluating ways to retrofit existing data into new structures, is a critical part of the path.
Choosing Partners and Preparing the Technology Organization
Beyond these larger-scale changes, there are additional factors technology leaders can expect to have to address. There’s no specific roadmap for success or a single way of doing it; however, these factors will come into play and technology leaders should have them on their roadmaps.
- Begin to evaluate partners and providers for voice-powered solutions that fit your organizational needs. From larger players to smaller niche companies, there are numerous options on the market. The right partners can help you develop a customized strategy as you move forward.
- Prepare for security and privacy concerns early. As with every new technology, the emergence of voice platforms will introduce new opportunities, security concerns and privacy challenges. Make these considerations a top factor as you advance your planning.
- Help stakeholders within the organization develop a plan for voice. Voice-activated tools play a role internally as well as externally. Technology leaders will be well positioned to help their organizations gain a competitive advantage by understanding the possibilities.
- Explore the changes to underlying technology investments that will be needed. Voice-activated tools often require strong network capabilities, cloud storage and other infrastructure to operate at maximum effectiveness.
Voice activation is the future. Mid-size organizations can begin to prepare now by looking at different use cases and business processes where these capabilities will have the most impact. From there, it’s important to consider security, infrastructure and other factors when developing a plan that will help your organization mature into its capabilities.