When AI Meets Brand Mascots. The Wonderful World Of Chinese Digital Assistants.
Voice user interfaces went from zero to one in less than a decade. With Siri-style digital assistants now commonplace, brands in China have started using visual avatars as the first step in building a personality-driven digital experience.
2021 is the year where the number of installed digital assistants is forecast to outnumber humans. Siri’s launch a decade ago has spearheaded their widespread adoption, with all the major tech companies now shipping equivalent services. But with most of them acting as voice-only ‘servants’ — an opportunity exists to build more engaging, brand-specific characters.
Since 2019, automotive brands in China have been seizing this opportunity through the development of a new generation of voice UI — virtual personal assistants (VPAs). These VPAs combine a visual avatar with playful personalities to open an era of emotive AI interactions.
While pioneered by Chinese manufacturers, Ford became the first global auto brand to launch a VPA character, debuting it at 2021’s Shanghai Auto. We at MING Labs have been helping them with the strategy and design of their program and are happy to share our understanding of this rapidly emerging space.
The History Of Virtual Personal Assistants
The most (in)famous forerunner to today’s VPAs was Microsoft’s Clippy, the widely loathed MS Office assistant. Since then, improvements in AI Machine Learning applications like Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU) have opened the door for a new generation of voice-driven digital assistants led most prominently by Siri. We have seen the likes of Baidu, Alibaba and iFlytek launch a suite of voice assistant services within China. Baidu’s DuerOS alone handled six billion interactions in Q4 2020. The wide usage of smartphones and — more recently — smart speakers have provided the platform for this second generation of digital assistants to succeed.
The New Generation Of VPAs
The example of Clippy was instructive in that its strategic objectives remain sound. Improving the customer experience of a product through a more natural, personality-driven character is a valuable opportunity — especially given the commercial potential of developing a brand mascot.
Led by NIO, Chinese EV (electric vehicle) brands were the first to successfully realize this. NIO identified the VPA sweet spot that cars presented with the high adoption of hands-free voice interactions, powerful screens and chipsets, and the increasing convergence of tech and auto across both positioning and product.
In 2019, NIO launched Nomi, a part Siri-style digital assistant, part playmate, located within a dedicated head-style screen atop the dashboard. With an emoji-style abstraction of a face, it can simply convey emotional tonality. In the market for a few years already, it is easy to forget how much of a radical departure it was. Automotive has historically been a serious, mature space. The addition of a cute, childlike digital helper was a risky product decision that paid off, helping to quickly build a strong emotional bond between the brand and its customers.
While Nomi was the first mover, other local EV startups such as Xiaopeng, LiXiang, Bestune (一汽奔腾) & Enovate (天际汽车) were quick to follow. Xiaopeng’s VPA took the anthropomorphized character a step further, launching in its P7 sedan a character 小P which featured a full body including arms and legs.
Through research conducted at MING Labs, we found that Nomi tested best amongst local users. The simplicity of Nomi’s avatar meant that it had a more universal appeal, with more detailed visual representations performing poorly among some people. Avatars that featured arms and legs could be perceived as incongruous given these characters are operating in the pure digital space. Nomi stands out in large part due to the industrial design of its ‘head’. The ability to turn and make eye contact is a powerful emotional tool that resonated well with consumers.
Next Steps For Virtual Personal Assistants
With VPAs now becoming the norm for new car launches in China, thoughts turn to what next.
We can expect VPAs to continue to expand their role outside the car. Mobile apps, car showrooms, and even smart homes are set to be explored as brands use their VPAs as intelligent brand ambassadors, building a consistent narrative across the customer journey. NIO has already started to use Nomi as a tool in their efforts to build a broader lifestyle brand positioning, debuting a broad range of merchandise in Shanghai Auto.
Inside the car, their importance is also set to increase. By 2030, 68% of China’s passenger-kilometers will be powered by autonomous vehicles (McKinsey, 2020). Critical to the operation of these level 5 autonomous cars will be a ‘Virtual Chauffeur — cognitive AI that fulfills all occupants’ explicit and unstated needs.’ VPA characters are set to be the face of this next generation of predictive AI, the primary interaction point within a car as auto brands move away from the core experience of driving, to a broader mobility play that features socializing, entertaining or working.
Considerations When Building A VPA
If your business identifies a strong use case for building a VPA, there are several things to consider.
- Character. Within automotive, the same VPA could notify you of hazardous tire pressure as well as play a game with your children. The tonality needs to be fitting across scenarios to build trust and positively enhance the overall brand experience. Before any design may commence, a clear north star on the personality of your VPA has to be considered and validated. Is it your best friend or your pet? Is it a literal representation of the device itself or rather a sentient being that lives inside it? For Ford, we aligned on utilizing the personality of a sidekick. We believe that for Ford the driver is the hero and in any daily narrative, the VPA is there to support them in their missions.
- Technology. Few companies have the capital and expertise to build and maintain the technology stack required to deliver a voice AI assistant. More likely, you will partner with an existing product such as those offered by iFlytek, Baidu or Ali. Careful consideration needs to be given to their suitability. Does the provided software development kit enable you to deliver your roadmap? How collaborative can they be for requirements not accommodated within the current product? No visual layer can compensate for a fundamentally weak experience so this may be the most critical decision you take. For international companies, global voice AI services are unlikely to be fit for purpose within China — Ford partnered with Baidu to localize its voice AI services within their Sync2.0 platform.
- Voice. Most current VPAs are using stock voices provided by the original technology provider. However, with humans perceiving 38% of personality delivered by a voice itself, there is a missed opportunity to optimize the VPA x Brand fit. More classic voice devices such as GPS head units have long utilized celebrity voices to provide added value to users and VPAs need similar attention to deliver the required quality of brand experience.
- Brand Fit. A key litmus test for a successful VPA is this: If you took it out of the interface, would users readily identify it as visually and emotionally fitting to your brand? If the answer is no to both of these, then the VPA can be considered a failure. The VPA is one of a constellation of brand touchpoints and given its highly engaging, highly interactive form, it can do more harm than good if it fails to cohesively fit into the overall brand experience. For Ford, we resolved this by utilizing the iconic logo’s oval shape while ensuring that the design featured visual and motion effects that represented their “Pioneering Innovation” China positioning.
- User Experience. A core challenge that most of the auto VPAs in China face is a weak user experience (UX). Frequently added as an afterthought to the interface, they are more commonly a distraction. A core premise of a good UX is being both credible and desirable but most VPAs never leave the screen even when the user is focusing on safety-critical tasks such as driving. For Ford, we opted against having a distracting avatar and used a responsive scaling-up experience. When driving, the VPA is a simple oval, subtly placed in the header. Once activated, it emerges in an overlay to directly engage with the user.
We have become accustomed to the continual emergence of powerful new technologies with the ability to transform the way we live. But for companies seeking to employ these in customer-facing applications, emotional authenticity is critical to success. The addition of a personality layer to interactive touchpoints has the power to improve usability, drive engagement and build a unique piece of branded IP. Given the proof of concept that we have seen in automotive, we can expect them to spread to other verticals such as smart home and robotics — and it will be interesting to see if brands move to build them across East Asia and beyond. We are looking at a future where technology and personality are set to combine to realize a new utility in intuitive digital assistance.
This article was first published in the German Chamber Ticker ‘Future Technologies & Reality’ Summer 2021 edition by AHK Greater China.
MING Labs is a leading digital business builder located in Berlin, Munich, New York City, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Singapore. We guide clients in designing their businesses for the future, ensuring they are leaders in the field of innovation.
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