Brooke Hawkins
Jan 8 · 5 min read
Image by LAURENT HRYBYK — originally featured in WIRED

Last year was a major year for voice. It has been interesting, as a designer, to listen to the speculation and propositions tech has surfaced about where this rapidly adopted medium will take us. An article published by Harvard Business Review this year portrayed a wildly optimistic and intertwined view of our voice-first future, and while I should have been excited, it left me feeling incredibly nervous. As this is published, nearly 118 million smart-speaker devices are owned by U.S. adults. The devices are here, and our future with them is being shaped today.

There are many players in the field of voice who would all give varied perspectives on what the next year will bring. Some might say that 2019 is the “Year of Shopping” on voice, or the year we all give up our smartphones for smart speakers or the year that voice tackles “fake news.”

Frankly, these predictions may or may not become our reality in the next 12 months. There are many technical leaps voice must make to become truly “conversational.” As a designer, my true concern lies with how we will breach the hard ethical questions we’ll invariably be faced with this year as these new solutions develop.

What does it look like when users are, often unknowingly, sending more and more private data via voice devices daily? Is the government allowed to seize our smart-speaker recordings in criminal cases? Are the algorithms for delivering curated playlists on our voice devices inadvertently flattening our access to diverse art and media? Is voice really the best place for something like voting?

These are my predictions for the top ethical challenges we’ll face in 2019, as well as some companies that are attempting to bridge the gap:

  1. News: In 2019, I believe we will see news organizations make real plays to enter the conversational space in meaningful ways. Players like NPR are making incredible strides, and organizations that have already played with content on Alexa and Google Home will be ahead of the curve — they’ll have data and real users to improve their solutions from. Smart-speaker saturation is high, and news organizations that understand that users are creating more daily touchpoints and patterns in interacting with news on smart devices will be ahead of the game. This will inevitably be a question that all news outlets will need to consider as saturation grows. The daily moments users have with smart speakers are being developed now, particularly while these devices are new in first-time households — like hearing your news over coffee, or in your car, or on your connected refrigerator. With these new technologies though, like with the development of social media news feed algorithms, news is becoming increasingly personalized and custom for users. While news organizations may focus on creating quality content, these algorithms will further divide a nation that gets its news in more personalized and fractured ways. Designers would be wise to think carefully about the algorithms they create to deliver this personalization — are we delivering content that challenges and opens up viewers’ understanding of the world, or are we contributing to a fractured internet of silos and superficialness, and preventing meaningful, challenging discussions? Designs that aim to tackle these challenges head-on will be paving the way for change this year.
  2. Healthcare and Voice: As more and more organizations clamor to bring health solutions to voice mediums, the question of privacy and protection of health data will become ever more pertinent. While this is not a new issue, I predict that a hack or data leak of a large healthcare organization could cause users to question their reliance on digital health services. With no other great options though, users are increasingly forced to decide between quality, accessible care and the sanctity of their relationship with healthcare providers. Solutions that make data accessible and understandable to users while still protecting — and helping users to understand how it is protected — will set the stage in 2019 and pave the way for real growth in this space. Additionally, key acquisitions of voice teams by telehealth companies like Headspace will continue to shape the voice-health space. Only time will tell how these non-accredited solutions for meditation and therapy will shape our perspectives in health, but there are few things funnier than hearing a Twitter exec wax poetic on the benefits of meditation. Threads like these elucidate that we should be questioning the designers and teams who are developing these telehealth solutions, and whether they are best equipped to do so.
  3. Media and Entertainment: Higher quality audio and entertainment will find its way to voice mediums. This is excellent, and will continue to bring in new users and excite them about the possibilities of voice. Users will come to expect the voices of public figures they trust on other platforms to find their way to smart speakers — those that create branded experiences and build user trust early will be ahead of the game. It is important to become a part of the life cycle of a user’s day and provide real value. Content producers and writers will be tasked with creating meaningful, branded experiences that give real value to users without over-saturating them with media 24/7 and causing real harm to attention, etc. Designers who create meaningful engagements in this space will set the tone. Additionally, designers need to think critically about how these algorithms are driving users to content that seems likeable based on data points, but is potentially flattening our access to diverse media and art. Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 explores this divide as an artist making music in an increasingly streaming-first world. Voice-first playlists and custom curation on Amazon and Google Home could further these issues, or create novel solutions for us to discover meaningful art with voice.
  4. Shopping and Commerce: Shopping will inevitably be the most radical shift in voice platforms in 2019. Brands are poised and ready, and Amazon and Google have already been experimenting with brand solutions to drive shopping on voice platforms. While we’ll see this grow exponentially this year, designers need to be concerned with constant marketing and allowing users to shop 24/7. How are we uplifting shopping for convenience and driving users away from local stores and businesses to patronize? Could these shopping solutions have unintended effects on the environment, local economies, and small businesses? Is shopping really the best-use case of voice, or will simply seeing voice mediums primarily as a tool for shopping cause the voice revolution to die early? Time will tell, but design teams that are thinking systemically about shopping and how it affects both individuals and communities will create radical work in this space. I am the most concerned with shopping, as it pulls me back into the imaginary world painted by the Harvard Business Review in their prediction article for 2018. I can’t help but wonder what we lose by no longer making mundane choices in our day to day lives? Something as subtle as getting to chose your laundry detergent might have much greater impacts on our health and wellbeing than we could anticipate. These are pertinent questions to ask, ones that fundamentally will shape why and how we use voice interfaces for generations to come.

Are Friends Electric?

Weekly musings and updates on the ever-changing ethical landscape of conversational interfaces and AI.

Brooke Hawkins

Written by

UX/UI designer // music maker // little fury

Are Friends Electric?

Weekly musings and updates on the ever-changing ethical landscape of conversational interfaces and AI.

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