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In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) voice assistants have made huge progress, feeding the fast-growing consumer appetite for smart speakers and other AI-enabled smart home devices. But despite numerous enhancements in terms of functionality and natural language support, interaction with AI assistants is still far from flawless. Many users struggle with even the most basic voice commands, which not only has increased frustration, but also holds back adoption.

As Ovum's Digital Consumer Insights 2018: Smart Living survey shows, the user experience with digital assistants has significantly deteriorated over the past year, with 10% of respondents indicating a very poor experience compared to 1% last year. Limited utility, an inability to understand basic spoken requests, and a lack of trust are some of the main issues users highlighted when rating the experience of using their AI assistant as poor or very poor.

 

Figure 1: Respondents' overall experience of using a digital assistant

Respondents' overall experience of using a digital assistant

Source: Ovum

 

At present, the AI assistant battle for market supremacy revolves around which competitor has the largest number of skills or capacity to support more languages and third-party smart home devices. Instead, the focus should be on developing a truly engaging experience with useful skills – not worrying about the amount of tasks an assistant can perform, but rather focusing on the quality of the skills that pass the certification process. In the meantime, low-quality skills keep piling up. Only the best ones will eventually survive, receiving good reviews from users.

The survival of AI voice assistants themselves is at stake if usability doesn't improve fast. Providing a large pool of skills offers flexibility to the user, but too many options and little guidance on how to find useful skills is a problem. Moreover, allowing developers to experiment means that almost no idea is too silly to turn into a skill, but not if it means offering end users useless skills at a point in the market's evolution where more awareness of the benefits of AI assistants is needed.

For this reason, user retention has become a key concern for AI assistant vendors such as Amazon and Google – to the point where they are now taking matters into their own hands. Amazon is focused on eliminating the frictions that impede Alexa's progress, for example by offering tools to enable developers to build more engaging voice apps and enhance skill discovery and by driving consumer awareness, and also by providing more visibility of third-party skills. Similarly, Google has introduced "built-in intents," a feature designed to improve action discovery through unique identifiers, suggesting actions to users only when relevant.

Such initiatives are key to making AI assistants smarter and more natural to engage with. However, there are still limited monetization opportunities for the partner ecosystem via skills, and more attractive and regular incentives are needed to get third parties involved. Sooner rather than later, these limitations will have to be overcome, if AI assistants are to see true mass adoption. Meanwhile, keeping existing users happy by providing a useful and agreeable digital experience is crucial to guarantee survival in the fast-changing AI assistant market.

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