Guest post by Patrick Foster. Feature image credit: Pixabay
With the nigh-infinite resources of the internet at our disposal 24/7, we’re always looking for better ways to draw from them. That’s why voice search is so prominent at the moment. Instead of phrasing things for computers, we can talk naturally.
In fact, voice search is often presented as the inevitable next step for all search, bringing about a world in which we speak to electronics as much as we speak to one another — perceived as the ‘next big thing’ in the interface world. Is that an accurate assessment?
Well… no. I contend that voice search most certainly isn’t the ‘next big thing’, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s lacking in value. Let’s investigate.
The rise of natural language processing (NLP)
We’re so used to Googling things that we find it easy to forget how differently we phrase things when we carry out online searches. Indeed, savvy internet users used to find amusement in the less technically-literate creating search strings like “Google, what movies are playing nearby today?” — it was considered obvious that search engines couldn’t be spoken to like people.
After all, long past the point of microphone technology being up to the task, computer systems remained very poor at parsing the nuances of regular speech. Every query would need to be carefully built to avoid any ambiguity. But NLPhas made huge strides in recent years, and as long as you use vaguely-common terminology (and speak clearly), it’s more likely than not that a voice search system will understand you now.
But it isn’t just improvements in NLP that brought voice search into the public eye. It took some notable trendsetters to overcome that early awkwardness, as we’ll see next.
How voice search rose to prominence
When voice search first became an option, it wasn’t clear how much of a market there would be for voice control systems. Some had tried the budding speech recognition systems and found them unimpressive, while others simply felt too awkward speaking to electronic devices.
In today’s world, though, speech recognition is taken for granted due to a potent combination of the aforementioned technological improvements andgenius-level marketing from two of the biggest tech companies the world has ever seen. When Apple released Siri, and again when Amazon produced Alexa, the mainstream perception of voice search (and voice controls in general) was fundamentally altered.
Now that we have always-on internet access, and live in a world where voice search is no longer seen as peculiar, our options have expanded. If you want to search while driving, typing, or juggling, you need only ask your smartphone in natural language. Big points for convenience.
You’d be forgiven at this point for thinking that I’m making the case for voice search being the ‘next big thing’, but I’m about to get to the crux of the matter.
Why voice search isn’t the ‘next big thing’
I’ll happily make the case for voice search being extremely useful, but it isn’t the ‘next big thing’ for various reasons. Here are some I think are particularly worth noting:
It isn’t suitable for all situations
It’s one thing to wake up in the middle of the night and ask your phone about that actor whose name you can’t quite recall, but it’s another entirely to search that way when you’re using public transport, or in a noisy environment (regardless of whether it works), or in any kind of business setting. I would feel tremendously uncomfortable using voice search in any but the most comfortable leisure setting.
To use another phone feature for comparison, it’s certainly useful that my phone has a ringtone, but I very rarely deem it appropriate to take my phone off vibrate. Having a phone ring during a meeting or in a public place is irritating to others at best, and potentially very disruptive.
Some people will never want it
Even in their own homes, plenty of people will simply never want to use voice search, no matter how intelligent it is. They could feel uncomfortable with the entire scenario, or just not want to share the level of personal information required for a system to interpret individual nuances.
Of course, they’ll have it as an option — but that isn’t very consequential since it’s just another part of the overall smartphone package. Plenty of people never use Bluetooth, but it’s a standard part of the technological setup and there’s nothing to be gained from removing it.
It isn’t always very useful
Going back to search-friendly phrasing, which is faster: saying “Siri, how hot is it outside?” or checking a weather widget? There isn’t all that much time to be saved with basic searches, so it’s really just a matter of whether it’s more convenient in any given situation to type something or speak it.
Now, a lengthy and hyper-granular search string would obviously be a lot faster to speak, but it would work the same either way — you’d still be looking at a screen for answers. And while you could search by voice andget a spokenresponse, what would you do if it didn’t meet your expectations? It would be difficult to adjust your search without the broad context of a full SERP.
Even in the case of searching an ecommerce inventory (one of the most common uses), the existence of well-designed filtering systemsmakes it perfectly simple to search in a few clicks, which can often work out faster than speaking.
And any easily-expandable retail CMS has access to smart search extensions (Shopify’s eshop designerhas Smart Search & Instant Search, for example) that can provide options after the first letter has been typed — something that simply isn’t viable with spoken search.
Voice search is part of a bigger movement
We’ve seen that NLP technology isn’t only useful for speech. While a strong case can be made that eventually it will come to consider things like tonal variation when reaching conclusions (an angry user might have subtly different intentions from a cheerful user, for instance), that’s still some way off, and is questionably useful for search anyway.
Rather more interesting is the move from voice search to voice control. It’s nice that people can ask Alexa questions, sure, but that isn’t why they buy it. They buy it because they want to be able to exert voice control — playing music, placing orders, dimming lights, and otherwise running their homes with spoken commands.
Both voice search and voice control, though, are just parts of a larger trend towards optimized UX. Through technology, we will one day have nigh-infinite options for using our electronic devices, and voice search simply has a part to play.
So let’s forget about any one piece of the puzzle being the ‘next big thing’. There probably won’t even be any such ‘thing’ — the future lies in the Internet of Things. Voice search is extremely useful, but let’s see what the underlying technology delivers next.
Patrick Fosteris a business and tech writer for Ecommerce Tips — an ecommerce blog dedicated to sharing business and entrepreneurial insights from the sector. Patrick loves to explore the intersection between tech trends and buisness. Check out the latest news on Twitter @myecommercetips.
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