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Artificial intelligence, including automated virtual assistants (VAs), is a hot topic for brands. The market for VAs is: projected to grow more than six-fold, to $23 billion by 2027, accelerated by the COVID-19-era desire to meet customer needs remotely and at scale. From Alexa to Slackbot to Eno to Capital One to Domino’s Dom, lately it seems like every brand has its own VA.
There is a wide variety in the way brands are approaching the design of VA experiences today, and there seems to be a special interest in the highly human those – VAs focused on the appearance and behavior of the real people who have previously answered these questions. But that’s where brands can go wrong. Instead, they could aim for a VA who more than human.
Beyond the human
Let’s say your brand decides to create a VA for your customer service experience. You know that brands benefit when customers feel they have less contact with an institution and more with a trustworthy person. You know that big data and AI can feel intimidating and impersonal. You think putting a human face on an algorithm can make it feel more comfortable, natural, and intuitive.
After all, customers are used to talking to people in assistant roles — it would be easy to think that customers want to retain as much of that experience as possible, regardless of whether the intelligence on the other end of the line is human or artificial. It might follow from this that replacing the human with the artificial is best done with an artificial human likeness.
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So you give the VA a recognizable human name, personal pronouns (probably she/hair), describe the VA who thinks/feels/acts humanely – from “She’s your advocate, always looking for ways to help” to “She’s your girlfriend, ready with a joke to cheer you up.” You design the VA to have a voice that sounds friendly, agent – she introduces herself by name, uses the familiar vernacular, tells jokes, makes banter. You give her a human face.
But this approach comes with baggage.
To begin with, it creates expectations, which can (and terribly good be able to) lead to disappointment with the customer (customers) are not For real interaction with a human, after all). At worst, it can lead to perceptions of cheating.
What’s more, while we may find human interaction in the abstract comfortable, we also know that we humans carry prejudices, stereotypes and past experiences in every social interaction. These biases introduce very complex risks to the choice of human form (let alone name, voice, and vocabulary) for your brand’s VA — and can even accidentally strengthen these prejudices.
The benefits of being non-human
Instead of striving to achieve the characteristics of a human interaction, there is scope to lean on the benefits of actually being non-human. Instead of replacing the human assistant – with all the weight of biases, expectations and functional capabilities that can come with that area – what if we focused on what VAs bring to the table that is additive and complementary to the human aspects of the service -experience? To emphasize that this is something else-something that can provide instant convenience, inspire technically advanced confidence, and actually be everywhere at once?
What if we were aiming for a VA that is more than human?
We see some exciting examples of this in the market today. RBC Royal Banks NOMI is mentioned and described as a separate entity that customers can refer to, but NOMI usually operates in the background, coupled with multiple intelligent tools intertwined with the mobile banking experience. NOMI brings insights in a concrete way within reach of the customer without a concrete form factor. The effect is a seamless interface that lends an undeniable digital prowess to a trusted financial services brand.
Domino’s Dom takes a bolder approach to more than human matches the personality of the brand. Dom‘s appearance refers to human while you hug chatbot, with its hat-wearing chat bubble shape and personal voice, within an interactive messaging screen that responds to clicks as well as pizza emojis. Dom achieves kindness and feels more dynamic than just human – with scale and ease that makes ordering a cake feel more immediate than ever.
apples Siri takes on an amorphous form of mere color and movement patterns (along with the voice, which Apple amended due to representation problems of the kind discussed above). The form easily changes from phone to watch to car to laptop, while maintaining the sense that customers are communicating directly with the same Siri at every touchpoint. Siri also refers to having a life of its own: When asked what Siri did today, Siri could describe telling other people stories as they cozy up by the fire on a cold night – also highlighting its magnitude. With warm and whimsical touches of familiar humanity, Apple magnifies the mysterious appeal of an abstract form factor that enables a cohesive experience across an ecosystem.
A high-tech differentiator
Analytical power right at the fingertips of customers, obvious cool-factor surprises of digital prowess, massive scale of simultaneous customer interactions – these feats are not possible for a human. Instead of setting expectations for human interactions, successful VAs can become high-tech differentiator and supplement to the high-touch, human elements of the brand experience.
So, when deciding how to represent your brand’s VA, ask yourself:
- What need does the VA meet? What progress should the VA enable clients to make in their lives? How should it change how customers think about your brand?
- How Much Spotlight — If Any — Should The VA Get? Who or what do you want to get “credit” for the AI capabilities: a prominent VA or your overall brand?
- How does the VA complement and uniquely contribute to the service experience? What form of representation puts the underlying technology in the best light to enhance and enhance all other aspects of the experience, including any handoffs to human customer service agents?
- Does this representation bend coherently across the entire experience? Will a given representation be coherently present at every possible point of contact where customers may encounter the VA – now and in the future?
These answers show you how to best leverage your brand’s technology capabilities as a powerful part of your brand. Done right, a VA experience will make your customers feel like they can do things they couldn’t before and relate to your brand in ways they couldn’t otherwise imagine – most likely by leaning on the benefits of to be more than human.
Hailey Scherer is senior consultant in innovation strategy at Lippincott
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