As we’ve explored in previous articles, voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have boomed in recent years, with 50% of all searches expected to be conducted by voice by 2020 smart speaker sales have hit 150 million in Western markets. But while the assistants have proven a hit with consumers for the convenience they can bring in daily life and brands looking to explore new means of consumer engagement, the lack of a smooth and straightforward payment option for third-party skill builders has always been a sticking point for widespread commercial uptake.
Market leaders Amazon hope to change that with the recent integration of Amazon Pay into Alexa, giving users the option of paying for goods and services with the details they already have stored in their Amazon account. This gives brands a simple, reliable, and secure route to monetise the platform, while allowing consumers an expanded range of purchase options.
As part of Amazon Pay’s launch, the tech giant introduced Alexa Donations in the US, a new feature which allows Alexa owners to donate to any listed charity with just a few simple commands. This has already proven successful in the US with over 200 charities signed up to take part, and the service expected to launch in the UK soon.
Setup for charities is simple and requires no technical skill, and we’re hearing charity clients keen to ensure a presence on the service, but it’s also been opening up more and more conversations about how voice assistants can help charities get their message across and make an impact. While the sector overall has been slow to explore the emerging technology, charities and healthcare organisations have actually been some of the most innovative in early efforts.
Consumers are most familiar with smart speakers in their homes, with some of Alexa’s most popular use cases centred around entertainment, general voice search, and functionalities to support domestic chores, like timers, shopping lists, and alarms. The home remains the most popular conversation setting for Alexa users, and there’s lots of opportunity for charities to engage with their audiences.
Accessibility charity Whizz Kidz launched an accessibility guide for London, advising on best routes across the city with step-free access for wheelchair users and people of limited mobility, while the British Red Cross’ first aid skill outlines what to do in common emergency situations, and Breast Cancer Aware’s skill talks women through how to check for early signs of breast cancer.
Support skills such as these (and comparable chatbots) have been particularly popular due to the removal of the human element - some topics can be difficult to broach with other humans, even if their role is to support in that topic, so the impersonality of voice assistants is actually a positive here. Indeed some Alzheimers patients have reported an affinity for Alexa as they can ask it the same question as many times as they need and the assistant will never appear annoyed or frustrated. Being able to talk to an impartial machine which will not judge or employ biases in its advice is a boon for some.
Beyond advice, charities have also launched skills offering users utility. Cancer Research UK’s Alcohol Tracker mimics familiar apps like MyFitnessPal, allowing users to input their daily or weekly alcohol consumption and track it against a weekly goal to help cut drinking rates. The skill also converts the drinks into calories and offers comparable ‘unhealthy’ foods with similar calorific content to give context to the health impact of drinking, and gives tips on how to cut down alcohol intake. Cancer Research UK’s skill works well as it fits into users’ daily routines; skills which are able to do this typically see longer lasting engagement and stand a higher chance of changing user habits.
Outside of the home, healthcare providers are also looking at the opportunities afforded by voice assistants in care homes, hospices, and hospitals. They have proven popular both for their native abilities, like controlling smart home heating and lighting, and bespoke solutions.
To provide support to hospital-based emergency departments, the Northwell Health network developed an Alexa skill to identify which ERs have the shortest waiting times and update patients in real time, reducing overcrowding, improving patient distribution and easing the burden on staff.
Voice skills have also be tailored to provide more specialised information and support. In their in-patient facility Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre are using Alexa to allow patients to get updates on their personal care, such as prescribed diet regimes and the timings and details of scheduled procedures. Libertana Health Homes, which caters to the elderly, use voice to allow their residents to access a rundown of daily activities, request assistance for staff, set reminders for medication times, and send messages to loved ones to arrange calls or visits. These increase the patient’s sense of control in their daily care and increase their feeling of independence, which allowing staff to focus on more urgent care duties.
Debra Harrison, Manager of Assisted Housing at Libertana Home Health, found all residents grew comfortable with the system, even if there were a few initial difficulties: “At the beginning of the pilot, which we limited to one of our facilities, we identified that some clients were unfamiliar with or forgot how to activate the skill. We spent time early on to educate users on use of the device; essentially, reinforcing their need to say, ‘Alexa, open Libertana.’ Not all had this challenge, but of those that did, once they overcame it, all program participants have become very comfortable using Alexa.”
The impact of voice technology in healthcare is not always entirely patient-centric; there are developments which have been designed to improve the lives of medical professionals and the organisations that they work in.
Boston Children’s Hospital has been particularly pioneering, using voice to improve efficiency in the running of the hospital. Their voice assistant has cut down the time required to draw blood by 15 minutes per patient; in intensive care departments it has allowed for the hands-free collection of data to maintain sterilisation, and quickened the process of completing pre-transplant organ validation checklists. Staff are now able to work more efficiently, with no time required to search for data, and in ways which do not risk the spread of infection or contamination.
Voice has also been positively affecting patient/doctor relationships. Studies have shown that patients feel more cared for when doctors maintain eye contact and identify those who do as more compassionate and professional. Doctors spend, on average, two thirds of their time completing paperwork, often requiring the use of a computer throughout an appointment, minimising the opportunity for eye contact or personal attention.
To combat this issue, Google Glass teamed up with development company Augmedix to create a medical scribe which could take notes as they were said and screen the data directly to the doctor’s eye through their eyeglasses. This has allowed the doctors to continue to look at the patient while their admin is completed, and has shown an 80% decrease in daily paperwork. Suki AI is also a voice-based scribe app, using voice assistants to transcribe during appointments and automatically integrate this information with existing medical records, removing the need to format notes post-appointment. Doctors have reported a 60% decrease in administration since using Suki.
Voice is by no means at as primitive a stage as some imagine; the technology is more sophisticated now than it has ever been. This does not, however, mean that it is a flawless enterprise. Voice assistants can struggle to understand accents, pitch and elderly voices. they also struggle with isolating one voice amongst a crowd, currently limiting the opportunities in busy environments. However with the skill and speed that Voice is progressing, we're confident these limitations will not last long.
HIPAA laws have prevented the integration of voice as a diagnostic device and from being widely used within hospitals, particularly due to concerns over the protection of patient data, although this looks set to be resolved with the increasing sophistication of voiceprints to identify individuals via voice - meaning compliance may be just round the corner.
So yes, voice is still developing and growing as a technology and, no, it does not provide a magic solution to all problems, but its unique benefits and ability to improve lives do outweigh its shortcomings. Every day new skills are launched and every day the technology behind them improves. Voice is not yet in its “Golden Age” but that does not seem to be so very far off.
If you interested in seeing how voice assistants can benefit your organisation, get in touch. We’d love to help you. If you would like more information on getting started in using Voice you can view our comprehensive whitepaper here!