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Hey Alexa...why are you so popular?

By Graeme McLean - Posted on 27 June 2019

Dr Graeme McLean, Department of Marketing, looks at the popularity of in-home voice assistants and the factors motivating their increasing use.

In-home voice assistants – think Amazon Echo and Google Home - have grown in popularity recently and are forecast for exceptional growth over the coming years, yet knowledge of their key success factors are unknown.

Despite the attention given to in-home voice assistants and proliferation of their adoption as well as their estimated future growth, there is little academic research exploring what influences individuals’ use of voice technology.

Our research aims to address this gap in knowledge. We looked at voice interactions to try to gain an understanding of the motivations for adopting and using an in-home voice assistant and found that there are several reasons.

The introduction of voice assistants on mobile devices provided individuals with the first opportunity to interact with AI in a useful and meaningful way. However, in-home assistants have further improved the interaction individuals can have with AI technology due to its advanced natural language processing and matching learning capabilities inherent within in-home voice assistants. In-home voice assistants are designed to be more human-like than previous attempts and intended to be an important part of an individual‘s everyday life, assisting with everyday life tasks such as turning lights on and off, setting alarms, understanding a user’s schedule, looking up recipes, providing customised news information, checking on orders and purchasing items - to name just a few useful functions.

Individuals often purchase items, particularly luxury items, to enhance their social status. This applies to technology too, including wearable technology such as smart watches and smart glasses. And there is a link between in-home voice assistants and symbolic benefits. So in the same way that individuals furnish their homes with designer hard and soft furnishings, the in-home voice assistant may also be part of this social enhancing activity.

Another reason people use in-home voice assistants is simple enjoyment of use. Individuals get enjoyment and pleasure out of interacting with such new technology, which then encourages future use. Useful and practical benefits to adopting this technology is fundamental to its take up and continued enjoyment is fundamental to its success.

A unique characteristic of in-home voice assistants is their ability to convey social benefits in the form of social presence and social attractiveness. AI powered voice assistants convey one of the strongest human-like attributes through the use of voice communication. It has been suggested that individuals converse with voice assistants in the same way as they do with other humans, developing a rapport with the artificial intelligent assistant. Such social presence conveyed by the assistant is a key factor to the success of the technology.

We also found that household size showed a positive significant relationship with usage of in-home voice assistants. We looked at households occupied by one to two persons and those occupied by three or more. The size of the household – large versus small – had an effect on the motivators and use of the voice assistant. Smaller households were more motivated to use a voice assistant due to the social benefits of having a ‘social presence’ offered by the voice assistant which replaces the human interaction that may be had in a larger household.

A downside to the use of this technology is that of privacy concerns. While there are undoubted benefits, there is a perceived threat to an individual’s privacy due to the increased level of information that technology gathers on individuals beyond the individual’s knowledge and – sometimes – control. These devices could have security vulnerabilities that could give access to hackers, and the thought of someone being able to steal personal details, financial details and record private conversations appears to dampen take up of this in-home technology.

We additionally found that privacy concerns were more likely to influence the larger households than smaller ones – perhaps because the former already gain social interaction due to larger numbers of people at home than in the smaller households where the risk to privacy is outweighed by the need for social interaction.

So what can developers of these products do next?

As technology capabilities continue to advance, developers and producers should focus on developing the human-like conversations between the voice assistant and the human user. Learning user preferences and the topics the user is interested in discussing will offer further social benefits and likely increase the numbers of people adopting and using the technology.

In-home voice assistants are used for practical purposes. People use them to help them complete tasks, look up information, seek support and process orders, therefore developers should focus on the practical benefits the technology can offer. Producers should also, given that the voice assistant is a household item, offer a range of design-led and aesthetically pleasing devices to match the design of the user’s home which could help increase sales.

Service providers should also acknowledge the opportunity to segment communications messages targeted to smaller and larger households. Voice assistants could serve a useful role in overcoming loneliness in a household with fewer occupants.

This article is taken from research published in Computers in Human Behavior and was titled “Hey Alexa…examine the variables influencing the use of artificial intelligent in-home voice assistants". The research was carried out by Graeme McLean and Kofi Osei-Frimpong.



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