Will Apple Watch Finally Unlock Voice?

Glenn Gruber | June 16, 2015 | In the News

Last week I was at a local enterprise mobile meetup about what’s holding enterprise mobility back, a topic I recently discussed in this space.

Invariably the conversation turned towards wearables–specifically Apple Watch–as a potential mechanism to finally jumpstart mobile in the workplace beyond email, contacts and calendar.

I hate these types of conversations. As an industry we can barely get our hands around device management or deploy off-the-shelf apps like Concur or Evernote let alone build custom apps to support or (God forbid) improve our business processes. Yet time and again we focus on what’s possible over what’s practical and glorify the 2 or 3 companies using “new” technologies like wearables as if such a thing is commonplace in the enterprise.

But this time a funny thing happened: we actually engaged in a reasoned Apple Watch discussion.

Several members wondered what problems these ‘watch’ type wearables were solving. Certainly no one was blown away by any of the apps. And that’s not surprising. I argued it’s way too premature to determine the success (based on shipments) or failure of the Watch (it’s just a notification platform for the phone) as a platform.

  • It’s unsurprising the first spate of apps were underwhelming. Pretty much everyone who built a Watch app did so blindfolded since they didn’t have the hardware in hand (or on wrist).
  • We are early in our understanding of the new interaction methods the Watch offers. What types of interactions are appropriate? If Apple knew the answer they wouldn’t be telling us to send heartbeats to each other. What is the ideal alert-frequency? Even if we get this right, how will users balance the sheer volume of alerts (glanceable or not) across all the apps they use? It’s going to take a few years to sort all this out.

The best thing to come out of the Watch launch, however, is the continued normalization of voice interaction across desktop, phone, and other devices. Nevertheless, the question remains: Will Apple Watch Finally Unlock Voice?

Because of the small screen size, voice will likely become a primary interaction method for the Watch. The WWDC Keynote announcements around Siri and its expanded use in the Watch seem to reinforce this belief.

Why does this matter?

The Internet’s in our pockets, but it’s still tied to 1990s web patterns.
Most of the traditional web interaction methods suck, yet many of those behavior patterns have simply been extended to mobile devices. Think of any e-Commerce site. Let’s use Amazon as an example.

cameras1A search for DSLR Camera brings back 138,134 results. Pretty much impossible to find what you want to buy, especially if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. But not to worry, Amazon offers 17 ways to filter results! (sarcasm)

Endlessly clicking checkboxes is neither fun nor efficient. Nor is it how we would choose to do things in real life. Yet this model is pervasive. On a mobile device if it’s not a checkbox it’s a toggle. And let’s not forget drop-downs! Sadly, all the mechanisms we had in the mid-nineties when the web was born are still alive and well nearly 20 years later.

We have surely outgrown these behaviors but we still can’t seem to shake them.

kayak3In the travel sector, Kayak is no better (though at least there’s only 8 filter attributes to deal with). Sliders on mobile are imprecise and cumbersome yet these are exactly the controls they provide.

Voice can save us from the tyranny of Checkboxes and Toggles
Voice interaction has come a long way. Tim Cook’s recent Keynote claimed Siri is now 40% faster and has a reduced error rate below 5%. But ridding ourselves of that last 5% is a heckuva lot tougher than the first 95%.

Both Google and Apple showcased how voice now powers the search and filtering of their photo apps. Voice interaction was also central to Google’s Now on Tap (though demonstrated in a way that interrupted the experience of listening to music…but I digress).

kayak2Even with the level of accuracy that Siri, Google and Cortana (throwing a bone to my Microsoft friends) provide, we’re still not ready to cast aside tactile screen interactions entirely. The good news is we don’t have to. Sometimes tapping a button or manipulating a switch (even virtual ones if Google’s Project Soli comes to fruition) is still the most appropriate form of interaction. Besides, in most apps you don’t have to plan for the entire range of language. An app’s purpose helps frame its intent and use and therefore greatly reduces the scope of voice interaction the developer needs to plan and optimize around.

kayak4Think about Kayak for a second. How much easier would it be to just say: “Show me all flights leaving after 5pm” or “only show me direct flights” rather than having to tap boxes and struggle with sliders. It’s not just more natural, it’s more efficient.

My hope is products like Apple Watch and Google Glass will push voice to the forefront and make it an expected interaction mode in our computing lives. For millennia we’ve used voice to interact with other people. Maybe we’re finally ready to extend that to our devices.

Apple Watch represents the first device that both begs for voice as the primary means of interaction and has the capacity to reach enough penetration in the market to change consumer behavior on a mass scale. At least I certainly hope so.

Glenn Gruber

Glenn Gruber is a Sr. Mobile Strategist at Propelics. He leads enterprise mobile strategy engagements to help companies determine the best way to integrate mobile into their business -- both from a consumer-facing perspective, but also how to leverage mobile to empower employees to be more productive and improve service delivery through the intelligent use of mobile devices and contextual intelligence. Glenn has helped a wide range of enterprises on how to leverage mobile within their business including Bank of Montreal, Dubai Airports, Carnival Cruise Line and Merck. He is a leading voice in the travel sector as a contributing Node to Tnooz where he writes about how mobile and other emerging technologies are impacting the travel sector and a frequent speaker at industry events.

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