The Personification of Voice Assistants

Voice assistants have become more than tools we use to get what we want. Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant – these aren’t in the same category as software applications like Microsoft Excel. Voice assistants are different. They are personality-infused technologies that are fully ingrained into our day-to-day lives.

Millions of people use voice assistants to shop, get directions, send messages, play music, search the web, and more. In the U.S. alone, 45M consumers used smart speakers to conduct transactions in 2021. As of last year, there were 165M smart speakers in the U.S overall, and voice commerce hit $29B, an enormous sum that will only increase in the coming years. A recent Juniper Research report estimates that this figure will skyrocket more than 5x to $164B by 2025

We wouldn’t be seeing these results if smart speakers weren’t helpful, easy-to-use, and personable. It’s this third item, especially, that is crucial to smart speaker success. Why? Because personification is what elevates voice assistants above other technologies. It provides the differentiated user experience that is redefining how brands engage with consumers.  

The Push for Voice Assistant Personification

Personification is described as nonhuman things being given human-like qualities and attributes. We see examples of personification all around us – in literature, marketing campaigns, online media, etc. Pixar movies are ripe with personification, e.g., the emotions in Inside Out, the vehicles in Cars, the fish in Finding Nemo.

The intent behind personification is to make it easier for people to relate to certain ideas or objects that would otherwise be hard to connect to, like a smart speaker, for example. This is why voice assistant developers have invested so much in the personification of their solutions.

For starters, several of the most popular voice assistants today have human-like names. We often talk about Siri and Alexa like they are real people with human capabilities:

  • “Why don’t you ask Alexa?”
  • “See if Siri knows.” 

Moreover, the ways in which we interact with these assistants reflect typical human interactions:

  • “Hey Alexa, what time is my doctor’s appointment tomorrow?
  • “Hey Siri, play me some relaxing music.”

Voice assistants now even use more colloquial language in their responses:

  • “You got it.”
  • “Sure thing.”

These minor features go a long way towards making people feel comfortable with using voice assistants. And as time goes on, interactions with voice assistants will only feel warmer and more natural. This will make it even easier for consumers to integrate voice assistants into their everyday habits. 

We’ve also learned that people develop strong enough connections to their voice assistants that they are unlikely to switch to another service. There is little crossover between Google Assistant and Alexa users, which suggests that consumers are silently pledging loyalty to their favorite voice assistants and going all-in on that technology.

Why? Because what they feel for their smart speakers is an authentic, human-like attachment.

Emotional Connections to AI are Real

Movies like Her and Ex Machina have given us realistic glimpses into what it can look like for a human to develop emotional attachment to AI. Although those films are fictional, what they depict is not far from the truth. Consumers today feel meaningfully attached to their voice assistants.

In 2015, a survey of 12,000 users found that 50% of respondents could imagine themselves falling for their virtual assistant. Research by J. Walter Thompson and Mindshare found that some people even have sexual fantasies about their voice assistants. More than a third of those who were surveyed expressed a desire for their voice assistants to be real people because they loved them so much.

The takeaway is that consumers actually wish they could get more from their smart speakers on an emotional level. People don’t just want to conduct transactions and accomplish tasks. They want to be heard by their voice assistants and believe that there is substance to the relationship. 

So how should retailers be thinking about this?

Well, it’s important to realize that voice assistants don’t just reduce friction in the online shopping experience. They have the capabilities today to make shoppers feel seen, heard, and valued to a significant extent. 

In a world where brands are struggling to keep customers engaged, voice assistants can help retailers build long-term, personalized connections with shoppers. And given that smart speaker adoption is going to continue exploding around the world, now is the time to build that voice shopping capability that people desperately want. 

The technology is there, and consumers are ready. These are exciting times to be in retail.

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