British bank NatWest recently announced that it’s testing an artificial intelligence-powered ‘digital human’ called Cora. Described by the brand as a “hugely lifelike” evolution of their text-based chatbot, she’ll answer customers’ questions in branches.
She joins the likes of Alexa, Siri and Cortana: another female-sounding virtual assistant. And though Google Home doesn’t follow the naming pattern, it defaults to an eerily passive feminine voice.
In many ways, this makes total sense. Users anthropomorphize bots, and studies show both men and women prefer female voices. They’re warmer and more relatable, and make people receptive to voice-activated technology.
Sometimes there’s an even stronger use case. Nest’s smoke alarm bot, Nest Protect, sounds female because research found children respond best to warnings when the voice sounds like their mother’s. This conscious decision increases the product’s effectiveness.
This is quite a specific exception though. In general, market forces–and deeper pockets for the few–are getting in the way of progress. Female virtual assistants are peddling stereotypes of subservience at a time when the gender power dynamic is being fiercely challenged. By activists (#MeToo #TimesUp), by public institutions (firing high profile figures for sexist behaviour, for example), and by brands (retracting advertising in offensive publications, for example). This puts the “progressive” parent companies, who talk about prizing inclusion and counteracting norms, in a moral predicament.
So, what’s the solution?
Well, not all assistants sound female. IBM’s Watson, Dom from Domino’s Pizza, and Siri (in certain markets) default to a male voice. And there has been some progress. Alexa now claims to be a feminist and won’t accept harassment as she used to. She responds to sexually explicit questions by saying “I’m not going to respond to that,” or “I’m not sure what outcome you expected.”
The whole idea of assigning gender to a piece of technology might seem completely regressive. But a gender-neutral voice probably won’t work, either. I’m not even sure how that would sound. We’re social beings and we relate to what we know, so most likely it would be incredibly alienating.
As the craft of design evolves, and we create increasingly invisible brands that thrive in a voice-activated world, we need to rethink the current approach. In theory, a good interface shouldn’t draw attention to itself. It should fade into the background. It shouldn’t distract the user or get in the way of information. But we’re talking about the value of diversity, difference, and choice here, and there should be more room to play.
Devices shouldn’t default to a female voice. They shouldn’t even have a default. They should offer users the option, allowing them to decide what most resonates with them and make changes simply and swiftly.
There’s a huge opportunity for brands to challenge the current pattern, and those dipping toes in the water are already having success. The Homer Simpson navigator, for example, achieved six-figure sales volumes in its first year and made the Guinness Book of World Records in its second. Alongside new products, marketers are having fun with the creative potential of the technology. Last year, Morgan Freeman played voice assistant as part of the campaign for his film, London has Fallen, and more recently, Super Bowl viewers went wild for Amazon’s commercial, “Alexa loses her voice,” featuring celebs Gordon Ramsay, Cardi B, Rebel Wilson and Anthony Hopkins. The spot overwhelmingly won over audiences, as verified by USA Today‘s Ad Meter.
The playfulness in all of this is great, but I’d like to see it go beyond fun ideas. There’s a chance for brands to assert a considered, and timely, point of view about diversity and inclusion – creating tangible differentiation in the near-term and setting the direction in the longer-term, in the best possible way.
Could users totally customize the voice interface, a bit like TomTom’s GPS VoiceSkins? Could they have different voices on the same device? A whole team of assistants? Could they change frequently, even thematically like the Google homepage?
Whatever happens, bots will be soon be everywhere, and voice will be another tool in the designer’s palette. Modern brands need an approach that can play out in this space. They’ll need smart, interconnected and responsive assets that are intrinsically connected to new technologies and platforms, that listen, create a genuine dialogue with people, and emotionally connect. The brands that invest in these “intelligent identities” will be able to navigate this new landscape, and it’s time to give the detail some thought. With effort now, we can make sure tech lives up to the societal leaps it promises.
Jemma Elliot is global head of content at Wolff Olins.