From the Google Assistant to Alexa and Bixby, digital virtual assistants are on the rise. Is your business ready for the revolution and the opportunities it will bring? This article will help you make sense of this emerging technology, and what it means for your business. In summary the article covers:-
I have also prepared a powerpoint presentation on the rise of digital assistants and a demo video of a business digital assistant. Please feel free to download and use as required.
What is a Digital Virtual Assistant
A digital virtual assistant is the name given to a sophisticated piece of software that interprets natural language input (known as 'intent') and responds by performing tasks associated with the intent. Chatbots are are type of virtual assistant as they respond to user input with natural language / rich media, and can also trigger background tasks on request.
Popular digital virtual assistants include Alexa (Amazon), Google Assistant, Siri (Apple) and Cortana (Microsoft). Each of these assistants can already perform a staggering array of seemingly 'intelligent' tasks including answering questions and answers, controlling smart devices such as lights and plugs, and also making simple purchases on your behalf.
Smart Speakers such as Google Home and Amazon Echo have placed these digital virtual assistants into the heart of our homes, with approximately 4 million sold in the UK by the end of 2017.
Interestingly, I attended an AI conference in London towards the back-end of 2018, where the general perception of smart speakers was that they were a bit gimmicky and predominantly used for listening to music and controlling plugs - this I believe is about to change.
How we Consume the Web Will Change with Virtual Assistants
Virtual assistants could start to transform how we use the internet, moving us away from navigating large cumbersome websites to consuming bite-size chunks of digital content. This 'bite-sized web' approach better suits the conversational interface of virtual assistants, and is especially suited to mixed voice / media devices such as the Google Home Hub and Amazon Echo Show.
Imagine a 'traditional' web experience where you visit a website and spend several minutes navigating it's content, searching for the snippets of information that are of personal interest. Perhaps you are looking for images of certain products in a particular colour, or looking for some instructions and perhaps a video. You will most likely click round the website navigation structure and perhaps even give the site search a go, continuing until you have found the information you are searching for.
With digital virtual assistants there is another way - you simply talk to it and ask it to find the information you require. If your business already has search friendly content on your website then chances are it will appear in the assistant results today, however, as a business you lack an element of control over what your customer will see and be able to interact with, but there is a solution - create your own digital virtual assistant app!
Creating Your Own Digital Virtual Assistant Business App
Creating your own business app for Google Home and Amazon Alexa will allow you to provide a much better experience for potential customers. Both Google and Alexa provide frameworks for building Voice / Rich Media applications for their smart speakers, and these frameworks already include the ability to surface rich visual media together with voice. As an example, within an 'assistant answer' you can provide cards, tables, image carousels etc e.g.
In a recent announcement, Amazon launched a preview version of their Alexa Presentation Language (APL) which allows developers to serve mixed voice and media responses to their Spot and Show smart devices. One key snippet they mentioned in the release is that HTML5 and Video will be supported shortly - reinforcing the argument that we are moving to a bite-sized web.
Taking Control of the Conversation
A digital assistant app / skill gets indexed for voice search in much the same way a website does, so there is a huge opportunity for UK businesses.
Lets say you write an app for the Acme Bike Company. If you have an answer in your app that deals with the following question (intent) - 'Show me the bikes that Acme Bike Company make', and your answer includes an image carousel control with images of the Acme bikes, the chances are the Google Assistant will hand over control of the chat to your app right at the point of the conversation where you answer this question. It will also show your image carousel of bikes on devices that have a display.
The key point here is that your app now has control of what happens next with the customer. It could be that as part of your response to the question you offer a free colour brochure, or a callback to discuss their requirements - the sales funnel beckons!
The second point in this example is that the customer is viewing your content but not via your website. They may ask further questions e.g. ' Can you show me model X in blue' - again the assistant responds with images of model X in blue, and perhaps some audio - but none of this activity is on your company website - its bite-sized chunks of rich media being consumed by a user tailored to their exact personal requirements.
Get the Virtual Assistant to do it!
So how else are digital assistants going to change our lives? One of the most valuable things to us humans is time, or rather lack of it.
Google have definitely recognised this and are currently trialing a new assistant feature called Duplex. This technology will enable their assistant to hold extremely realistic conversations with other humans on your behalf, performing tasks such as making a restaurant reservation, or booking a salon appointment. - i.e. tedious tasks that nobody likes doing.
Duplex is currently being trialed in several major US cities, with a view to honing the technology before bringing it to the masses. Google are rumored to be making Duplex available on Pixel phones in November 2018, initially only in parts of America - but it will come to the UK, probably sometime in 2019.
How Will Digital Assistants Make Our Lives Easier?
The question is how will this new tech affect you personally, and what ramifications does it have for businesses in the UK. The other week I needed to organise a birthday card and gift voucher for my niece, and I also had to research the cheapest energy option as our tariff was up for renewal.
Rather than spend hours doing these tasks, I wanted to be able to ask my digital assistant to do at least part of it for me. With a bit of imagination this is how the situation could be handled:-
'Ok Google, Can you send Jessica a birthday card from Moonpig and include a £30 gift voucher please'
The google assistant connects me deep into the Moonpig Google home app, already understanding that I want to send a birthday card, including a £30 gift voucher to one of my google contacts - Jessica (and her address). As I am already authenticated with google pay it has most of what is required to complete the transaction. I am then shown a ranges of birthday cards on my visual display, one of which I pick. I then speak the message I want to include and confirm - job done, and not a website to be seen!
As I am leaving the house, I ask my assistant to research the best energy deals available to me based on my average consumption, and have the results ready for me on my return home this evening. When I return home, the deals are visible on my Google Home hub for me to quickly browse, select the deal I want to go with and then leave the assistant to handle the change-over.
Sound far fetched? As a developer I can confidently say that most of this is already achievable with the current digital frameworks. Give them another 12 / 18 months and it should be more than achievable providing UK businesses grasp the opportunity and start to develop the required mixed voice / media apps.
What Practical Steps Should Your Business take Now?
There are several things your business can start to consider to make sure you are ready for the rise of the digital assistant:-
- Get your business a presence on this new medium, even if its just basic. Users connect to voice apps using something called an Invocation Phrase, for example 'Alexa, talk to Acme Bicycles'. Getting your app in early will secure the branded invocation phrase for your business.
- Buy a Google Home Hub or Amazon Alexa Show for your home and get used to how they work. Only by using them will you start to understand the opportunity to business - and there is a lot!
- Familiarise your IT teams with how Voice App frameworks work. Sign them up for an Amazon Developer and Google DialogFlow account, and get them researching natural language processing (NLP), sometimes known as natural language understanding (NLU).
- Consider implementing a Knowledge Framework / Business Brain in your organisation. This 'Brain' will be the key component in your Voice / Visual architecture.
- Give consideration to how you might best serve bite-sized chunks of HTML to these frameworks based on natural language requests, ideally re-using existing web user controls / partial views etc.
- Take a look at chat-bot analytics packages such as Dashbot. These packages plug-and-play with Google Home and Alexa apps and give you company great insights into customer behavior.
- Ensure your website content utilises schema markup, especially the type used by google rich cards. For certain schema types i.e. recipes, videos, news etc, it is much easier to get your web content into the Google Assistant results as this article suggests. Perhaps this might be the way forward for getting web content into the assistant streams.
Benefits to Business of a Digital Assistant App
As well as the benefits to business of a digital assistant app discussed earlier in this article, the following are also practical benefits:-
- Brand security on this new digital medium via 'Invocation Phrases'.
- Customers can chat with your business 24/7, 365 days a year.
- Low running costs with high availability and scalability.
- Consistent responses to customer queries.
- Secured business knowledge via Brain / Knowledge Framework.
- Potential to use technology for Internal Personal Assistants / Staff training.
- Consistent application of Call to Actions (designed into conversations).
- Positions your business for early adoption of call center tech driven by Virtual Agents.
- Increased business contact surface - same agent can be deployed across multiple platforms.
- Conversation analytics and sentiment analysis pretty much out of the box.
Hopefully this article has given you some insight into the potential of digital virtual assistants. The benefits of getting your business a representation on smart speakers are vast - don't miss out the inevitable gold-rush!
If you have any questions about the content of this article or digital assistant apps in general then please get in touch.