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BIG’s Blog: Alexa

Voice activation is here, and its name is Alexa.

Voice activation will spark a revolution in the way we interact with our technology. And one of the by-products will be more human connection.

But wait.

How many of you have no idea what I’m even talking about? If so, you’re not alone; I was in your camp six months ago, but tune in, because this is big.

I know you’ve heard of Siri, Apple’s “intelligent assistant” that is voice-activated. Alexa is Amazon’s voice controlled “system”. Like Siri, Alexa lets you speak your wishes. But unlike Siri, the Echo system with Alexa as the interface turns the Echo Dot and Echo speakers (sold by Amazon) into a voice-activated controller for all kinds of products and services. For instance, stream music, dim the lights, read books to you, order pizza, and on and on.

Everything is being connected to the Web, it’s called the “Internet of things” and now using Alexa, voice activation is the interface. Leave your phone in your pocket.

Voice activation tech is hot right now and it will only get bigger and better. Through the end of last November, even before the big end-of-the-season Christmas buying rush, Amazon had sold over 5 million Echo Dots and speakers.  

Amazon pioneered the product and launched it over two years ago but Google jumped in with their “me, too” product last year. Google obviously has the weight of their search and natural language processing behind their product, but Amazon’s Echo is tied to their business model of selling things and with over 5 million already sold, they clearly have a first mover advantage.

For years, people have been telling us that soon we would just talk to our computers, as opposed to entering our queries through the keyboard.

But this is bigger. It is a legitimate revolution and probably not for the reason you are thinking. Alexa uses artificial intelligence (AI)… but then, you probably knew that. But what you might not have thought of is that using voice activation actually changes the conception of our interaction with our technology. And in doing so, it reintroduces the “human” element back into our communications.

Remember when phones were just, well, phones? You dialed a number and a person answered. Then along came computers with email and then smartphones with text and social media with messaging. It is a dizzying array of intermediating communications technologies that allows us to communicate with other people via whatever. But talk has been diminished, and why, because it takes too much time. Writing or answering an email or a text is on our timeline, but if someone calls us, our timeline is interrupted.

With voice activation, now we can employ that most human quality by simply saying our request. But what this does in a subtle way is re-establish the value of human connection, even if the intermediating voice isn’t human.

Alexa is not a person. But she (notice I did not say “it”) has a human voice. We like that. We are comfortable with that. We like interacting with a human voice.

Why? Because humans are social creatures.

As voice activation gets better and more sophisticated, it becomes our technology interface default. It puts us back into the human mode of talking.

We get “used” to talking our way through our days.

You and I already know people that use Siri to get directions, or look things up instead of typing in their request. Alexa just takes this to a whole new level. Alexa can get information and activate directions but it can also activate your Internet-connected stuff.

But once we all shift to voice activated, our expectations and comfort in actually expecting to connect with a human go way up. An intelligent device is a good first start… accent on “intelligent”… since today we all have to deal with voice-controlled telephone attendants. “I’ll get you to the right person, but I just need to ask a couple of questions.” I’ll bet Alexa could answer my question.  

Why is that important? If someone hears or sees something about your organization and does a voice search, and has a question, are you set up to field their question in real-time?

“Alexa, call Native Hope.”

But what’s better than an Alexa answering at the other end?

Smart nonprofit organizations are going to have real live people answering those calls. Not Alexa and NOT an automated voice attendant.

As it gets easier to voice connect and as we get used to voice connecting, people who want to know more about your work or organization or a problem will voice connect.

They will use Alexa to facilitate the connection, but it better be a human answering the phone on the other end.  Think of the last exchange you had with an airline reservation service or phone carrier or cable customer service.

Now compare that to connecting to Netflix? How about Zappos? Real live humans answering the phones. What a concept! It’s the difference between seeing customer service as an opportunity to develop a human connection versus merely a cost of doing business.

Voice activation can open the door, but you better have a person there to begin that human relationship.

We’re going to control our world… at home and at work… through voice.  And your supporters are going to connect with you through voice, they just don’t know it yet… but you do.


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