How voice will change eCommerce

Voice interfaces have come a long way. Not too long ago, we all made fun of the voice commands that didn’t work. Now voice recognition has greatly improved and we all are starting to embrace it. Soon, the vision from the 60’s Star Trek TV show will come true and we can actually interact with our devices via voice rather than using a mouse and keyboard or endlessly trying to hit the correct spot on the touch screen.

Voice is entering our lives in many different ways. Many of us have experienced a voice interface in our cars. Smartphones have had voice interfaces for a long time, but the real game changer is the  smart speaker technology. Whether it is Google Home, Amazon Echo (aka Alexa) or any of the other variations of those devices, we all are starting to use them. My TV remote added a voice interface to it and I have to admit, I haven’t used the old way of changing channels since the day I got the new system.

Yet all those use cases are barely scratching the surface of the potential. In many cases, our voice inputs are still rather limited to a handful of keywords and don’t allow for much variation in the command. Those limitations are quickly becoming a problem of the past. The rapidly improving Natural Language Understanding along with fuzzy matching and other technologies allow us to have a free flowing conversation with the AI.

What does that mean for eCommerce?

I believe that it is a game changer for eCommerce. So far, eCommerce has been struggling to find ways to make navigation and searches easy for their customers. Yet the success of those efforts has been limited. In general, we see keyword search options somewhat improved via elastic search but we are not even close to a system where a user can “ask” for things, or have a back and  forth dialog with the eCommerce portal.

How amazing would it be if customers could approach the eCommerce portal and simply ask questions like they would ask a sales clerk at a store and the portal can actually answer with an intelligent response and virtually take the customer to the place he or she is looking for?

The good news is that the technology is ready for it. Using the technology available today, we can build a virtual sales person that can be embedded into the eCommerce portal to serve customers 24/7. And I am not talking about a chat window. I am referring to a real life voice conversation. Also this experience will go beyond current smart speaker experience, because the response will not only be a voice response, but also a visual response. In other words, the user cannot only hear the response but also look at the result.

Although Amazon and Google are having some success with people ordering via the smart speaker, I am uncomfortable buying something without looking at least at a picture of it. Combining the voice with the visual component will unlock the power of voice for eCommerce platforms and transform the portal from a “web page” into a virtual mall with “sales people” on duty.

What are the benefits of that approach?
That will depend  if you are the customer or the retailer. The benefit for the customer is easy to spot: No more “I spy” games or “guess the keyword” games but rather a straight forward question with a quick and easy to understand response. Also for the first time, customers will easily be able to ask questions about the product and then the system will respond with an intelligent and relevant answer.
The benefits for the retailer are multiple: First of all, the retailer will get a better insight into what their customers really want. No longer will retailers have to guess based on my keyword search, but they actually get a full sentence out of me. Second, retailers will be able to have a much more tailored and meaningful response to my inquiry. In the current setting, I am entering a keyword or a couple of keywords  without much context and the retailer needs too guess what I am looking for and will try to direct me. In a voice environment, I am more likely to speak a full sentence, making it possible for the AI to capture my real intent. That knowledge makes it much easier to provide a meaningful response. Obviously, there are many more benefits to such an approach which might be different in each use case.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this upcoming transformation. Given the quality the technology has already reached, as well as the major improvement of the user experience such an approach will bring, I believe that it is safe to say, that voice will very soon reshape the entire eCommerce landscape.

Again, very soon we will be able to operate like the crew of the star-ship Enterprise. Only we don’t need to call our voice assistance “computer”. Luckily, we can give it a more personal name than that.

The next 12 months will be very exciting to watch and I am looking forward to seeing the first systems go online.

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