Home Apps Voice tech in travel, part 1: Brand adoption

Voice tech in travel, part 1: Brand adoption

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The days of typing search terms into a browser or clicking through drop-down menus may be fading. Rising in their place is a much more natural interface: voice.

Market research firm Gartner predicts consumer demand for voice devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home will generate $3.5 billion by 2021.

Statistics regarding consumer adoption of these products are staggering.

In January, Google announced it sold “more than one Google Home device every second since Google Home Mini started shipping in October.” Google Assistant – which powers all of the Google Home products (original, Mini and Max) and also works on Android phones and tablets, iPhones, TVs and watches – is now available on more than 400 million devices.

But Amazon still dominates the smart-speaker market, with third-party research estimating the Alexa products control 76% of the total user base. In December, Amazon said “tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices sold worldwide” during the holiday season, and the Echo Dot was the top-selling product from any manufacturer in any category across all of Amazon.

As consumers become more comfortable conversing with a device for information and shopping, brands are investing more resources – human and financial – to develop voice-enabled solutions.

For this month’s focus on voice, we’re examining how travel companies use the technology and the implications it will have on the industry.

First up, a look at brand adoption.

Trainline

Image result for trainlineTrainline, an independent train ticket retailer with offices in Paris and London, launched a voice application for Google Assistant in November.

“The whole emergence of voice as a viable platform is massively exciting. It’s a game changer,” says Dave Slocombe, product director for Trainline.

“It takes about 26 seconds to do a journey search from London to Manchester for this weekend on our app – to launch the app and tap between screens – and it takes about 10 seconds to do it by voice. It can be 100% faster to use your voice for a core functionality. Any technology that is that much faster than the preceding technology will win.”

And voice search is not only fast – it’s smart.

Users of Trainline’s app can set their most common locations, such as home or office, which the app takes into consideration when recommending things like departure times and closest stations.

Slocombe says the app can handle 12 levels of conversations, allowing it to respond to complex inquiries. For example, after telling a user what train to take to go from a specific departure point to a destination at a set time, it can also answer questions such as, “Do I have to change trains?” “Who is the train operator?” and “What is the departing platform?”

“My personal favorite feature is, ‘When is the last train home?’” Slocombe says.

“Getting that information from a website or any app – even our own – is quite a laborious task.”

Kayak

Image result for kayakKayak launched its first Alexa product in May 2016 with search for flights, hotels and cars, flight tracking and some basic exploratory features. In January 2017, it launched similar functionality for Google Assistant.

In September, Kayak made two notable updates to its Alexa skill: Now users can link their Kayak account with Alexa so the system can answer custom questions such as “When is my next trip?” and “Is my flight on time?” Using their linked account, travelers can book a hotel room using only voice commands and receive their confirmation via email.

“We are going really long, so to speak, on voice,” says Kayak’s chief scientist, Matthias Keller.

“I think it is what mobile was 10 years ago. Mobile showed up and it was very small, and today the common industry number is 50/50 split [between desktop and mobile].

“I guess it would be a long way before it’s becoming one-third/one-third/one-third with the new piece of the pie being voice, but voice right now has a tremendous amount of motion behind it with these devices being integrated into every object you can imagine.”

Creating voice solutions

Keller says improving Kayak’s voice solutions is an ongoing process of testing and listening to feedback from users as well as receiving input from experts at Amazon and Google.

“We had access to great resources inside our partners, and they had people helping us who had been designing voice interfaces for years and this helped us to jump-start our efforts,” he says.

Slocombe says voice technology has made dramatic improvements in recent years – in its ability to understand language and accents – so he has no doubt it’s scalable. Now, the challenge is refining the dynamics of the interaction.

“Whereas in the past, user-experience designers focused on the visual side, now a lot more of that is about the design of the conversation experience. How you handle the conversation really matters as to whether the people have a good experience or a bad experience,” Slocombe says.

In the few months since Trainline’s app launched, Slocombe says the company has noticed users quickly beginning to interact with it as if it’s a real person.

“They talk to it like a human so we find really rich, long questions that our app is receiving.”

Next steps

Keller says for future updates to Kayak’s voice system, he would like to enable flight booking and calendar integration so the device “can give you a better recommendation for a hotel not just in a city, but near your meeting that’s on your calendar,” he says.

“It’s still so early that part of our task is basically pushing the whole ecosystem and talking to our partners Amazon and Google and telling them what we want to do and asking, ‘Can you think of features you can bring to these platforms to help us in doing that?’”

Keller says the e-commerce aspect of voice will need to improve  – easier payment options, more personalization and, ultimately, more trust – to foster user adoption.

“Once it is there I totally believe it will be fully transactional for many increasingly complex tasks. There won’t be a need any more to go to the phone or computer,” he says.

“If I want to order something today, I still prefer the big screen, but it’s getting easier to make that decision on a phone and the same thing will happen to voice – it will start to feel better and better to do things on voice.”

Trainline is also developing ticketing solutions, so users can complete purchases using their voice and then receive a ticket in the form of a bar code on their phone. Slocombe says that could launch by the end of March.

He is also working to enhance the system so it can handle more than single journeys. In the future, Trainline may expand its voice solution to its full global platform, which includes 34 additional European countries and Japan, and may develop a skill for Amazon Alexa.

But an immediate need, he says, is for Trainline and other voice app providers to create more awareness about their voice solutions.

“One of the challenges with voice is getting it evenly distributed and easily discoverable. But it’s definitely where we will be in the future.”

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