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Artificial intelligence, including automated virtual assistants (VAs), is a hot topic for brands. The AV market is expected 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 Capital One’s Eno and Domino’s Dom, lately it seems like every brand has its own VA.
There’s a wide variety in how brands approach designing VA experiences today, and there seems to be a particular focus on the very human ones – VA’s that aim to look and behave like real humans who have previously responded to these surveys. But this is where brands potentially go wrong. Instead, they might strive for a VA that is more than human.
Suppose your brand decides to create a VA for your customer service experience. You know brands benefit when customers feel less like they’re interacting with an institution and more like they’re interacting with a trustworthy human. You know big data and AI can seem intimidating and impersonal. You think putting a human face on an algorithm can make it more comfortable, natural, intuitive.
After all, customers are used to talking to humans in assistant roles. It would be easy to think that customers would want to preserve that experience as much as possible, whether the intelligence on the other end of the line is human or artificial. . It could follow that replacing the human with the artificial is best done with an artificial human likeness.
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So you give the AV a recognizable human name, personal pronouns (probably her/her), describe the AV thinking/feeling/acting like a human – from “She’s your advocate, always looking for ways to help” to “She’s your friend, ready with a joke to cheer you up. You design the VA to have a voice that sounds friendly, agentic – she introduces herself by name, uses a colloquial vernacular, tells jokes, jokes about food. You give it a human face.
But this approach comes with baggage.
For one, it sets expectations, which can (and very well can) lead to customer disappointment (customers don’t really interact with a human, after all). At worst, it can lead to perceptions of deception.
Moreover, while we may find human interaction comfortable in the abstract, we also know that we humans carry preconceived notions, stereotypes, and past experiences into every social interaction. These biases introduce deeply complex risks into choosing a human form (not to mention a name, voice, and vocabulary) for your brand’s VA, and may even inadvertently reinforce these biases.
The advantages of being non-human
Rather than aiming to achieve the characteristics of a human interaction, it is possible to look at the benefits of being truly non-human. Instead of replacing the human assistant – with all the weight of biases, expectations and functional abilities that might come with that territory – what if we focused on what AVs bring to the table that is additive and complementary to aspects people of the service experience? By emphasizing that it’s something different– something that can offer immediate convenience, inspire confidence at the forefront of technology, in fact be everywhere at once?
What if we strive to have an AV that is more than human?
We see exciting examples of this in the market today. RBC Royal Bank’s NOMI is named and described as a separate entity that customers can navigate to, but NOMI primarily operates in the background, linked to multiple smart tools woven throughout the mobile banking experience. NOMI brings information to the customer’s fingertips in a concrete way without a concrete form factor. The effect is a seamless interface that lends an unmistakable air of digital prowess to a trusted financial services brand.
Domino’s Dom takes a braver approach to more than human faithful to the personality of the brand. Dom’s appearance alludes to Human while kissing chatbot, with his hat-wearing chat bubble shape and pleasant voice, in an interactive messaging screen that responds to clicks as well as pizza emojis. Dom achieves friendliness while feeling more dynamic than merely human – with a scale and convenience that makes ordering a pie more immediate than ever.
Apple’s Siri takes on an amorphous form of color and motion patterns (as well as voice, which Apple has adapted due to representational issues of the same kind discussed above). The form easily scales from phone to watch, car to laptop, while maintaining the feeling that customers are interacting directly with the same Siri at every touchpoint. Siri also references her own life: when asked what Siri did today, Siri could describe saying the other people stories as they get closer to the fire on a cold night, also highlighting its magnitude. With warm, whimsical touches of familiar humanity, Apple augments the mysterious appeal of an abstract form factor that enables a cohesive experience across an entire ecosystem.
A high-tech differentiator
The analytical power immediately available at customers’ fingertips, the distinct cool factor surprises of digital prowess, the scale of simultaneous customer interactions – these feats are not possible for a human. Rather than setting expectations for human interactions, successful VAs can transform into a high-tech company. differentiator and complement to the highly tactile and 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 VA enable clients to make in their lives? How should this change the way customers perceive your brand?
- How many spotlights, if any, should the VA get? Who or what do you want to get “credit” for AI capabilities: a top VA or your overall brand?
- How does the VA complement and uniquely add to the service experience? What form of representation puts the underlying technology in its best light to elevate and improve all other aspects of the experience, including handoffs to human customer service representatives?
- Does this representation fit consistently across the whole experience? Will a given representation be present consistently across all possible touchpoints where customers might encounter VA, now and in the future?
These answers will indicate how you can make the most of your brand’s technological capabilities as a powerful component of your brand. Done right, a VA experience will make your customers feel like they’re able to do things they couldn’t do before and relate to your brand in ways they otherwise couldn’t have imagined. , most likely looking at the benefits of being more than human.
Hailey Scherer is a Senior Innovation Strategy Consultant at Lippincott
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