Time to say bye bye

Time to say bye bye

Smartphone sales peaked in 2017, while voice and AR are closing the gap between devices and our senses. Perhaps our addiction to screens will end sooner than we could imagine.

Imagine waking up on a rainy Thursday. Enjoying the comfort of your warm bed, you are somewhat dreading the thought of stepping onto the cold floor to get into the shower. “If you get up now you’ll have time for a nice shower before your coffee gets cold”.

It could have been your own thoughts, the voice inside your head, but it is your digital assistant speaking. It’s still dark as you slowly get out of bed.

“Lights to ten percent”, you say, and as you make your way to the bathroom the voice follows you into the ­shower, gives you the morning news update and tells you to bring an umbrella to work because it might rain on your way back home. Your first meeting, which you had totally forgotten about, has been moved to a different building.

As you head over to the kitchen you catch the smell of fresh coffee and see it waiting for you in your favorite cup on the countertop. The fridge tells you it has ordered more tomatoes, and that you have a couple of eggs left if you want them for breakfast. While cooking the eggs, your eyes are resting on the countertop which is now displaying the apartments that have appeared in your saved search overnight. My next apartment should have heated bedroom floors, you’re thinking, that would make it so much easier to get up in the morning.  With a simple gesture you swipe through the pictures, read the description, and the gentle voice asks if you would like to be reminded about the viewing on ­Sunday.

“There are some delays so you should leave in about ten minutes if you don’t want to be late. Oh, and don’t forget that umbrella.”

We are ready for new interfaces

This might sound like fiction, but digital experiences like the ones described above aren’t taking place in some far off, imaginary future. Many are happening right now, thanks to emerging technologies that are creating deeper connections between our physical and digital worlds. A shift is underway where digital experiences will no longer be ­confined to phones, laptops, desktops, and TV screens, but surrounding us in more subtle yet immersive ways. Blending the digital and real worlds, augmented reality (AR) and voice are spearheading this movement. At the same time there are several signs indicating that we are ready for new interfaces. Smartphone sales and ­usage peaked in 2017 and are both starting to flatten out. We ­observe signals indicating that people want to spend less time staring at screens. Considering that the average person spends around 3.5 hours on their phone each day, this is probably good news. Research also shows that phone overuse is making us unhappy, alters our memory, and some even classify internet addiction as a new mental disorder.

Even the big tech players are listening to these signs and making some efforts to reduce the consumption of unimportant content. Facebook recently changed its news feed algorithm with the aim of displaying more personal content and fewer adverts and viral videos, introducing the term “time well spent”. And with the new iOS 12 update, iPhones will have a built-in screen time tool, with which users can set limits to their phone usage.

But more efficient in curbing our screen addiction is the rise of new user interfaces that naturally draw our attention away from our phones. Voice and augmented reality are often referred to as ambient user interfaces because they appear in our immediate environment but are invisible unless called upon or contextually relevant. Therefore, when we lift our eyes off the screen, we can interact with new ­interfaces in a manner that lets us be more present in life.

However, while less screen time is a likely consequence, the implications of AR and voice are so much greater. AR and voice are also amazing storytelling mediums, both able to efficiently and effectively convey information. And while many draw a parallel between voice assistants and radio, the key difference is the interactive dialogues one can have with a voice assistant.

Instead of listening to a linear stream of news, users can now choose which topics to skip or follow more closely. Fictional stories can take a new turn of events by the ­command of the user. Instead of pressing buttons, we can control their environment by speaking to machines in the same way we speak to each other. Since we already know how to do this, voice as a user interface removes a lot of traditional barriers to technology adoption and is suitable for both old and young audiences. AR represents the next big innovation in how we produce and consume content, to which pictures and motion pictures were the preceding ones. Whether it’s for news stories, fictional movies or product pictures on a website, most agree that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. But through augmented reality dramatic news can be viewed safely in your own home. Imagine experiencing the Tham Luang cave – the cave in Thailand where the 12 boys were trapped this summer – at a scale and level of detail that far surpass that of text and image. AR gives us the ability to teleport someone into an environment or situation that would otherwise be impossible for them to experience. This brings about a whole new world of opportunity, not only for storytelling or commerce but also for entertainment and medical purposes. It turns out that a good way to cure arachnophobia is to pet a virtual creepy crawler because the brain can’t really tell the difference!

“Instead of listening to a linear stream of news, users can now choose which topics to skip or follow.”

Spending less time on our phones is not going to be easy and it will not happen overnight. Virtually all the products we interact with on our phones are built for instant gratification and addiction, releasing the same hormones as drugs and sugar when in use. We stay locked in and logged on to these apps because we fear that if we stop using them, we might miss something important in our (however distant) friends’ lives.

There is no guarantee that future AR and voice applications won’t build upon the same addictive behaviors as our current smartphone apps. But for designers and product developers, these new inter­faces provide a blank slate – an exciting opportunity to experiment but also to define what our future user experiences should look like. And hopefully, with experience from today’s screen addiction, the new technology will be designed to filter out the noise for us and be optimized around our needs.

We might not be ready or able to completely ditch our smartphones just yet, but a combination of AR and voice commands will soon be the primary interface for anything spontaneous. This means that technology could help you be more present in the real world, while elegantly serving you with information, assistance and immersive experiences on demand.

This is happening in Schibsted:

Voice – VG

With both Google Assistant and Alexa improving and becoming available in more languages, the interest for voice as a user interface is starting to grow. Schibsted’s newspaper VG created one of the first actions (skill/app) for Google Assistant in Norway and has been experimenting with text-to-speech in order to give Norwegian listeners live news updates and sports results. Because voice is uncharted territory, two of the key focus areas has been user research and getting MVPs in front of users. People are excited about AR – but also get very impatient if the technology fails. Whether it’s to reach out at different hours or to people who are old or young or otherwise unable to use phones or computers, voice represents a very interesting opportunity.

AR – Finn Shopping

While open source software development kits by Apple and Google, ARcore and ARkit, revolutionized the AR industry last year, the final push for mainstream adoption is anticipated to come from AR on the web. With the iOS 12 software update from Apple this fall, a feature called AR QuickLook was launched to all iPhone and iPad devices. This makes it possible to view 3D objects in AR in Safari, with the tap of an icon and with no extra app installation needed. Finn Shopping is the first Schibsted company to try the new feature. Working with the Platform and Technology Trends team, they have partnered with an external firm for 3D model content creation and are now launching AR QuickLook in chosen categories on the Finn website. AR QuickLook will help users make better buying decisions, allowing them to view new furniture items in the context of their own home, comparing sizes, colors and textures in a realistic way.

Voice – Aftonbladet

Aftonbladet Daily is Sweden’s first daily news podcast. It’s available for smart speakers using Google home and Amazon Alexa. The launch is part of a larger push into voice and audio by the new department Aftonbladet Labs. The podcast is produced in collaboration with podcast platform Acast. Aftonbladet recently released a service for Google Assistant where users can get the latest news read to them and also access the title’s full catalog of podcasts. In Sweden news aggregator Omni is also launching a news pod, in Norway Finn Travel has built a functioning flight search during a two-day hackathon and in France Leboncoin has been experimenting with text-to-speech in its jobs vertical.

Play your card

Play your card

The Hero, the Ruler, the Jester. Archetypes can be powerful tools when building a brand. Facebook and Google have proved just how powerful.

How did two of our times’ strongest brands build their success? Grown out of American college campuses, with organizations packed with engineers, Google and Facebook have achieved iconic status over a short period of time in virtually all parts of the world – creating strong brand positions without spending vast amounts on marketing.

An obvious answer to these questions is that Facebook and Google have created unparalleled digital experiences that are hard to ignore for anyone exposed to them. They have certainly faced many competitors, but they have prevailed through consistently delivering on the most important criteria of their categories. But their brands also show strong archetypical traits, and that helps explain their consistency and global appeal: Iconic brands often play on archetypical references, and even though a lot of them are very complex and multifaceted, the most iconic ones are those that seem to be concentrated on just one.

“We can go back to basics”

Archetypes are powerful symbols, roles, characters and stories that transcend time and culture. Or as Carl Jung explained: “forms or images of collective nature which occurs practically all over the earth as constituents of myths and at the same time as individual ­products of unconscious origin.” We can say that we all know them and understand their meaning. And it makes a lot of sense when you think about it: in India, Denmark and Uganda, people will understand the archetype of the Hero, the Mother or the Ruler. At the simplest level, we all understand the various symbols connected to them. Facebook and Google have been consistently projecting the most important features of their archetypes and have brought them into this unknown landscape of the ­Internet.

Facebook’s core

Facebook presents the same interface to everyone, encouraging you to be open and honest, celebrating participation and ensuring that you are connected at all times and on all possible devices. At the core of the Facebook brand you find this complementary connection to the elitist origins of the product: the Harvard campus. Facebook was never intended as an ­opposition to the established structures of social life, it was always about creating a positive, engaging and simple way of just being a person. The most prevalent symbol of this thought is the “like” button – a brutally simple way of “paying it forward”. Facebook was, and still is, a social brand. It is always there for you and that is the true value to the The Everyman archetype.

Google is founded on an idea that you can create a better reality for yourself right now – the Internet is easier to use, safer and less complicated in Google’s sphere. The brand has so many archetypical traits of the Innocent that they are hard to ignore: Often a simple, almost naive user interface that was in stark contrast to the chaotic, stereotypical and technological competitors at the time, a name and logo that seems childish and welcoming (even the two O’s can be argued to give deep references to the eyes of a small child – a symbol also pointed to the face of the Volkswagen Beetle), the “I’m feeling lucky”- button – showing us how easy it is to have a better search experience when you just trust in exploration, the “Don’t be evil” motto…

Even though their main business is search and the advertising that comes with it, Google’s sister brands or larger projects gives an important clue too: Calico – a company that is said to basically be set out to cure death, Google Books – a project to scan and make available all books in the world naively undermining the system of intellectual property and thereby the motivation for most to write and distribute books, Project Loon – balloons hovering over Africa, providing internet access. These projects are the expressions of a company that feel that they can do it all – and instinctively we all understand how this makes sense for them. It would not make sense for a brand like IBM or Hewlett Packard, not even Apple.

It demands discipline

All this doesn’t mean that they aren’t truly business driven. And their competitors would have much to say about the true impact of their businesses. But the power of their archetype brands overtakes this aspect in our minds. It also means high risk and deep crises when they act in a way that contradicts our expectations of them being the open or honest Everyman or the Innocent.

The conscious usage of archetypical symbols or traits demands a lot of discipline from a company. And that is probably where Facebook and Google show their biggest strength when it comes to nurturing their powerful brands: it is not because they have had extensive brand consulting from the start of their companies, in fact, I think it is safe to say that they have just acted out, creating products and services that are in tune with their deeper meaning and organizations. Remember, their product is their communication. And just as nature and markets have a tendency of shaping its artifacts and culture through almost evolutionary measures, so have these brands been shaped by their first bursts of success and their failures.

Marketers have a tendency of adding layers of complexity to their brands, either to make them more current or to adapt them better to the society they operate in. Google and Facebook, together with other global digital brands like Uber (the Ruler), Amazon (the Explorer), Snapchat (the Jester) are showing us that we can go back to basics. But this requires that products and communication are created as expressions of the same core. And that core consists of stories, patterns and characters known as archetypes. Marketers need to fully understand their brand’s archetype to be able to effectively execute compelling, emotional and consistent communication over time.

Stop typing, start talking

Stop typing, start talking

Machine learning and AI are fundamentally changing the way we interact with our computers. Perhaps the best interface will be no interface. Let’s just talk.

“It’s part of the human condition to think that if we struggle to use something, we assume that the problem resides with us,” said Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer. The best type of user interfaces are the simplest ones, the ones that work intuitively and doesn’t require much analysis on our parts, but adapt to our ever-changing needs. This insight uncovers a hidden reality of using computers: we have to adapt to their behavior. We learn their foibles, they don’t learn ours. But perhaps we’re getting closer to the ideal user experience – no interface at all. Chatbots and voice are still at their very beginning. But everything points towards that we will be talking a lot more in the future.

“We are going from talking through messaging apps to chatting to machines”

Computing paradigms change every 10 to 15 years; they’re typically defined by how they operate with the outside world – meaning we have to change with them. The first computers purely operated via command-line (or text) input. They required linguistic skills of a precision that the Academie Française would have been proud of. The graphical interface (GUI), pioneered by the Xerox Alto, popularized by the Mac and dominated by Microsoft Windows, took hold in the late 1980s. GUIs were more forgiving visualizing everyday metaphors like files and folders on a color screen. This is the computing most of us know. Multi-touch computing, pioneered by the Apple Iphone, was a third revolution, point and draw with your finger, what could be simpler? The Iphone fundamentally changed the way we interacted with technology, our expectations, because the whole screen became a playing field.

Chat is natural

Smartphones, in turn, paved the way for the rise of messaging apps. We now have countless ways of contacting each other, whether it’s on Imessage, Whatsapp, Messenger, Slack, Skype or Wechat. And since it makes sense for companies to try to talk to us, using the same channels we use to talk to one another – chat and chatbots have received a lot of hype – becoming, you might say, our latest interface. The reasons are clear: chat is natural and we spend a lot of time in chat applications. Turns out chatbots are also ludicrously easy to build. But it also turns out, building a great chatbot is a lot tougher than building a chatbot. If you’ve ever tried chatting with a chatbot you’ll know why; the conversation is dull and repetitive. God forbid you ask an original question only to be met with utter incomprehension.

So, we’re still pretty far from the ultimate interface, but no doubt, things are happening. Today, the technology is converging and leaps made in one field serve another. Natural language processing (NLP) enables chatbots, image recognition enables self-driving cars, voice recognition enables Alexa, Google Home, Siri. Those are all different branches of machine learning and we’re getting better and smarter at it, at an increasingly faster rate. A few companies are now starting to reach that level but we’re still in the early days. Yet, according to experts, by 2020, 85 percent of all customer interactions won’t require human customer service reps; indeed, those interactions will happen over chat, but also over voice.

We are going from talking to one another through messaging apps to chatting to ­machines. What’s the next step? Eliminate typing, and use your voice. Going back to the point on the importance of keeping user interfaces simple, voice is a big deal. To quote the epo­nymous book, the best UI is no UI. No design is required if you could simply talk to your device.

Today, voice AI such as Siri or Alexa, are limited by two things: technology and architecture. On the technology front, speech recognition and text recognition still have a lot of room for improvement, especially if your English is somewhat accented. (Fun experiment, ask Siri to “Google Tchaikovsky” for you with a French accent, you’ll get surprising results.) Their architecture is based on general themes, the AI is able to draw context from the user’s request, classify it and answer it accordingly. What it has a hard time doing however, is to follow a conversation, remember pieces of information mentioned three questions back and use it when needed. There’s no dropping birthday gifts hints with Alexa.  But thanks to the millions of users that interact with it regularly, the AI is getting plenty of training and gradually getting better.

A voice AI good enough for us to freely chat with would be extremely liberating: no more staring at your screen constantly, just chat with your AI, how cool does that sound? Nevertheless, voice AI raises some really challenging UX problems. How do you teach your users to use an interface which is actually invisible?  What will be the standard keywords to which Voice AI will respond to and who will set them?

We know the world is changing

Can Voice ever be good enough to be totally unscripted, feel as seamless as talking to a fellow human? The answer to this question is more a matter of belief, than it is hard science. We cannot anticipate the changes that will happen with the exponential development in tech and what we will be able to do. For now, a “Her”-like society is definitely science fiction.

What is very real, however, is the short-term impact voice and chatbots will have on the way businesses interact with their customers. Indeed, 32 percent of executives say voice is the most widely used AI technology in their business. Six billion connected devices will proactively ask for support by 2018. By the end of 2018, customer digital assistants will recognize customers by face and voice across channels and partners. HSBC has already implemented voice recognition as a secure access to one’s banking details.

We all know that the world is changing and it’s changing faster than ever. Not that long ago we were all going nuts about tactile screens – “it works without buttons!” – and now we live in a time in which soon all homes in developed countries will be equipped with voice AI devices to facilitate and organize our lives. And where businesses will interact with their customers in a way that is barely invented yet.