There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks regarding Apple’s new smart watch and rather than bore you with yet another ‘yup, they’re sure screwed’ opinion*, I’d actually like to talk about another obsession many mobile and wearable tech designers have… voice control.
It seems every time someone gets on a stage to wax lyrical to an overexcited (and gradually more bloated and middle aged) crowd about their latest ‘thing’ that’s going to be a #gamechanger on that big wheel of the ‘internet of things’, they hit nerd-climax presenting voice control.
Whether it’s the latest xBox (want), smartwatch, Google goggles or the key function on your new phone (like my Samsung S5), voice activation and control is angled as the ‘magic ooh-ahh’ bit to which all other new functions or developments pale by comparison. And it is magic. But here’s the thing…
Nobody wants it.
Or rather, more specifically, nobody wants to use it.
Yes, we’ve all sat around for half an hour that first week of getting our precious new gadget – cooing over it like a newborn – and giggling at Siri’s responses to every crude question we could think of (the modern tech age equivalent to looking up rude words in the dictionary as a kid). But what happens then? Well we just sort of, ignore it really.
And this isn’t because the tech isn’t good enough. It isn’t because we’re just waiting for them to make that perfect tweak to the system, and then we’ll adopt. It’s because we just categorically do not want to use it. And we never will.
From the moment this new digital revolution kicked off, the key developments in communications that have been successful have had 3 things in common:
1. They allow/speed up broadcast communication – often to multiple people or points simultaneously vs. face to face / voice calls.
2. They allow us time to ‘buffer’ in between communications vs. face-to-face / voice calls.
3. They allow us to ‘filter’ our response vs. face-to-face / voice calls.
The email, the text message, any social media platform… all of these have these three characteristics in common. Email, for example, is designed to allow us a ‘quick’ and ‘non-intrusive’ communication with others, but at the receiving end of that mail, it allows a ‘pause’ in response and to prioritise those communications. It also allows us to ‘filter’ how we say things. We have time to think, to structure, to sound professional – to craft the most ideal response. Just think about how and when you have calls or meetings in the office these days. I’m betting, you’ll find they generally tended to be exclusively reserved for things that either had or needed to convey a sense of urgency, or things that needed to be kept ‘vague’/off record in response.
Text messages and IM services like WhatsApp also do the exact same thing in our private lives between our friends and family. Think about the last time you called a friend (excluding partners). When was it? Why?
In the last few years we have rapidly backed away from the telephone call for every little thing – even voicemail – which most people admit to now finding ‘annoying (just text me!)’. All of them (particularly Whatsapp and social networks) give us the perception that we are ‘saving time’ – we can update our groups en masse, rather than personalised and time consuming responses.
Perhaps even with those contacts we may still have the habit of phoning regularly (although this obviously doesn’t apply to anyone aged 20 and under, born the same time as the Nokia 3210), one gets a sense of growing guilt for ‘intruding on them’ unless we have some very specific news. Of course this is a rapidly developing behaviour, so there are clashes on etiquette. People get upset if one uses the ‘wrong communication’ or is ‘caught’ multitask communicating at the wrong time. And everyone has a personal example – like myself, when my sister got engaged at text me on WhatsApp, rather than calling. Or my friend, who yesterday decided not to go on a second date with the guy who left his mobile out on the restaurant table.
Perhaps it’s a stone-aged thing, but it seems the our human psychological default is for self-controlled, rapid communication with as many connections as possible and that means text.
Of course this is effecting our relationships with one another and how we develop psychologically on a fundamental level but the outcome of this won’t really be known for another few years – when we have the advantage of retrospect. What we can see at this stage however, is that in the presentation of the self in everyday life, the human race in 2015 seems to be supporting the theory that our social drive is primarily gesellschaft (social relations based on impersonal ties, such as duty to a society or organization) over gemmeinschaft (those spontaneous and ‘organic’ social ties, characterized by strong reciprocal bonds of sentiment and kinship within a shared tradition).
So if we are (rightly or wrongly) reducing our face-to-face and voice-to-voice communications to an equally reduced number gemmeinschaft ties… why on earth would we give our smartwatches the time of day? (OK maybe that should be ‘ask our smartwatches the time of day’).
If we’re speaking less and less to our valued contacts, why on earth would we want to speak to our machines?
When it comes to are smartphones and watches it also negatively affects that whole (best possible) ‘presentation of the self’. Do we really want the rest of the world to know that we want to ‘find the nearest pharmacy that sells pregnancy tests’ or how often we want to ‘call Mum’?!
I don’t think so.
As I’ve said numerous times before and times again, it really doesn’t matter how ‘high tech’ you make something – it all still comes down to basic human psychology and behaviour. So if the designer of the next true ‘gamechanger’ in tech really wants to win it big, I think they should be thinking more about how to tap into the very behaviours technology itself has nurtured in us, not fighting an impossible battle against it.
Side note: when it comes to marketing, I just thought I’d leave you with this quote from Rory Sutherland about planning (which is what I do)…
“The role of planning should be to enjoy as broad as possible an understanding of human behaviour and how it can be changed (and what cannot be changed). This is an essential role within any agency, but it brings with it a vital role outside the agency in zealously fighting for human-insight-led solutions as the answer to business and social problems. I mentioned that planners need an enemy. To me, it seems perfectly clear what that enemy should be. That is, the all-too-common practice of attempting to solve human problems without any reference to human nature or temperament.”
* OK, can’t help throwing in the two cents, so I will just say Apple’s downfall was nowhere near ‘new’ news and should have been apparent to anyone who cared to look in 2013 due to two things
1. The shift of the advertising from iconic to well, rubbish. (Advertising is always first to ‘go’ because you can throw out your agency super fast and your budgets can be moved, contracts broken etc. Software next – cue Apple Maps – then product development).
2. The core value shift from ‘few things’ but really, really well designed to Tim Cook’s strategy of well…