Voice Interfaces are Finding Their Way into Businesses

Businesses create products and services to sell to consumers, but sometime those products end up changing the way business is done. Amazon’s Echo was such a huge success this Christmas season that they actually ran out of stock. The message? Humans interacting with voice technology to retrieve data and perform digital tasks has taken hold. That voice technology is being adopted in businesses around the country, but this should not be interpreted as a green light to make the case it should become a part of your company’s technology cache. There are some valid concerns by businesses and the existing technology may not be up to the standards required for it to be a reliable partner in the business culture.

Data Storage and Security

Heading the list of problems for business executives is addressing the problem of where company data should be stored and how secure is that data once it is available on an outside server, even if only temporarily. It is one thing for an outside hacker to break into a company’s servers but quite another to voluntarily make that data available for the convenience of being trendy. This follows the general idea that just because you can do something does not mean it should be done.

The Role of the Voice Interface

Beyond the corporate security concerns is the issue of simply looking around the average office and seeing how people perform their jobs. Though we like to talk about the Information Age and Paperless Office, the reality is there are a number of ways we communicate with computer systems and each other. The major forms of business interaction are through:

  • e-mail
  • telephone
  • text messaging (including Twitter)
  • Instant Messaging
  • written correspondence
  • video conferencing

Each of these fits in with the achievement of the company’s business plan, yet not everyone uses all of these technologies. In the same vein of reasoning, voice technology clearly has a place in the office environment, but its specific role will take some time to be determined. One of its strengths is that it can provide information immediately instead of having to do a search on a device such as a laptop during a meeting. That process usually goes from inquiry, to search, to result, to communication to the group. A question can be asked by anyone at the meeting and the response could be heard by all.

Amazon is working on a screen display for its Echo, likely to address the needs of business users. The fact that a screen is in the works for Echo says a lot about the way people communicate. We are still primarily visual creatures and remember information more readily when it is in a visual format. For voice technology to become a serious part of the workplace it must do more than answer short questions restricted by specific phrases. Current users of voice technology must seriously ask themselves what they require of their voice technology. If Alexa misunderstands a voice command, does it matter if it selects the wrong radio station or song? Users usually recognize when Alexa is not giving the requested information, but is any of it really critical to how your day goes? Perhaps the simple question is, How much do you trust it?

The definitive use for voice technology in business is the primary interface between human and computer. The keyboard and mouse interfaces have been the standard for the majority of computing over the last 30 years, and we all know people who can’t type efficiently. The Windows interface was designed to accommodate a keyboard and mouse, which hasn’t really changed much. Attempts to integrate human gestures such as finger swiping into the interface have not had good results and have limited application. The development of Siri for the iPhone had to be one of the reasons for the continued popularity of the smartphone.

Bad Examples of Current Uses of Voice Technology

The most obvious bad example is calling up a voice-driven menu system when calling for customer service. Some of the most annoying systems (you know who you are) will not allow you to connect to customer service until you answer the question to their satisfaction. Project that possibility into a business meeting where the clock is ticking, and the wasted time and frustrated manager will have a negative impact on everyone.

In its current state, voice technology is only able to understand a limited number of commands, and that is further limited by the voice response systems unable to actually understand human language. Google and all the other search engines have the same problem. Anyone who has found themselves screaming at an unresponsive computer screen because the search result is so far from what you wanted you would have been better off going to an actual library.

The future of using voice technology in business is bright, but it will take a while to get all the obvious problems worked out. What is the procedure when the voice technology crashes? We may think the keyboard and mouse are passé, but what would you do without them? They have been reliable interfaces for decades, and are still likely to be around as a backup interface. But once our dependency transitions over from keyboard-mouse to voice, we will be as proficient with using them as a backup interface as we are today using paper and pen to take notes and write a letter. (To be fair, cursive writing is supposed to be making a comeback.)

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