Digital assistants: How not to fall off the edge


Digital assistants: How not to fall off the edge

Lorenzo Wood

Digital assistants – a staple of science fiction, from Hal to Jarvis – now promise to be genuinely helpful to millions of people.

After a shaky, over-promised start, products in the market today have come on in leaps and bounds. What opportunities are digital assistants opening up for brands? And what are the new challenges they face?

Last year, Google and Facebook announced assistants that integrate with messaging channels. Facebook’s chatbot platform has more than 30,000 bots. Microsoft showed how its Cortana assistant can introduce third-party chatbots into conversations, elegantly demonstrating the increasingly likely way people will find the right bot to use among tens of thousands of choices.

Devices such as Amazon’s Echo, Google Home and LG’s Hub Robot expand interaction with assistants from focused (I take out my phone and look at it or talk to it) to ambient (I can casually "talk to the room").

These products’ ability to recognise what people say is remarkably reliable and they work well for common tasks including controlling entertainment and home automation, and simple information such as diary appointments, travel delays and weather. Today, this ambient interaction works in a room with a device. The next step will be ambient interaction wherever you go.

Rony Abovitz, founder of augmented-reality company Magic Leap, describes his company’s goal as "all day, every day" technology. It remains to be seen how quickly and at what cost Magic Leap can achieve this but, in the meantime, Vue Smart Glasses, due out in July, promise unobtrusive and permanent audio connection to your smartphone.

Ambient interaction is powerful because it removes that last barrier to starting a conversation. I don’t have to select anything; I just start talking. This creates great opportunity to have more contact with customers and help them in a timely way.

It also creates some important new challenges, including the scope-scaling problem. Imagine I have an ambient digital assistant. I’m out shopping, and I like the look of a watch. The salesperson takes it out and I try it on.

My assistant, of course, is always ready and waiting. I might ask: "What’s my balance?" Easy. But I’m more likely to ask: "Have I got enough for this?"

To answer, we now need to figure out what "this" is and know its price. "Can I afford this?" is quite a bit harder. I may be able to pay now but what happens at the end of the month? Or have I been saving up specially? Or can the watch be financed? If I ask "Can I afford this?", I might just as easily ask: "Should I buy this?" This is a lot harder!

Will my family be happy that I’m spending £4,000 on a watch? Is £4,000 a good price? Is it the assistant’s job to tell me that I’m looking at a fake? This is the scope-scaling problem.

An ambient assistant has an unparalleled opportunity to embed itself deeply in people’s lives. In an ambient conversation, there are no guard rails. Over time, when things seem to work, we naturally extend the scope of what we ask.

William Tunstall-Pedoe, whose company Evi formed the basis of Amazon’s Echo, told me they had learned that people strongly prefer action. If you say to your Echo "Play music", it plays some music. If it didn’t play music but, instead, asked you to make some more choices first, you would find it annoying.

At any time, an assistant can give up and explain that it cannot answer a request. Every time we "hit an edge" in this way, we create a moment of annoyance and leave the door open for someone else to take control of the conversation.

Many brands today are taking their first steps in conversational interfaces, chatbots and digital assistants. Getting the basics right should not distract them from thinking hard about their strategy. What role do they want to have in a world of constant, rich, ambient interaction with digital assistants? What are the attributes of their brands that will help them? What kinds of relationships should they have with what kinds of partners? How important is this?

Smartphone users, as is often quoted, typically check their phones 150 times a day. Always-available ambient assistants, with their lower barrier to interaction, greater understanding of context and greater ability to be proactive, could drive ten times as much interaction. It’s worth getting it right.

Lorenzo Wood

Lorenzo Wood


Lorenzo leads his team in identifying and developing strategies and new technologies across capabilities for Digitas at a global level. With a career spanning over 30 years, his work in digital media dates back to the days of Web 1.0.


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