Alexa, Why Did Voice Recognition Go Mainstream?

Virtual assistants were designed for accessibility & inclusivity but often appeal to a wider audience. Here’s why…

If I approached you right now and said a breezy “hi there,” apart from wondering how I got into your living room, you probably wouldn’t be super shocked. Why? Because people greet one another all the time — family, friends, neighbours, strangers. But when we do this or communicate vocally with each other for any reason, we take something monumental for granted: our voice.

Today is the perfect time to appreciate and honour the capacity to speak, as it’s World Voice Day. This annual event seeks to celebrate the voice, which the organisers compare to:

They argue that:

And for the most part, they’re not wrong. While speech is absent in some humans, like those suffering from mutism, vocal communication is, for the majority, a crucial part of daily living, education, and work — especially people with physical, cognitive, or learning disabilities. And by no definition is that a tiny segment: around one billion people (15% of the world’s population) identify as experiencing some form of disability.

Let’s consider how the voice might improve quality of life for those individuals — or even folks suffering from chronic conditions like repetitive stress injuries. Unfortunately, many such individuals can’t easily operate a keyboard or mouse, or at all. Instead, they rely on AI-powered voice recognition software to turn on and navigate computers, mobile phones, tablets, and other devices — to type, scroll, click, and all sorts of other functions.

Thank goodness for our tech-enabled world! But you might be surprised to know that, although technology firms initially developed voice recognition systems to make it easier for our disabled friends to access and use devices, they now also offer a better user experience to many general users. And UX, as the writers of Netflix comedy series Emily in Paris recognise, is key — for all users!

This isn’t the first time a product designed for inclusivity has made it into the mainstream. Can you think of another? Ok, I’ll give you a clue: Ernest Hemingway once famously said it:

Another clue? Ok, it’s in the image above this paragraph. Yup, you got it… the typewriter. Many of the earliest ‘writing machines’ were built so that blind people could communicate with the world, the way others did using pen and paper. And it wasn’t long before everyone else saw the benefits of switching to a typewriter.

One component of good user experience design is the creation of accessible and equitable digital products, like the typewriter and technologies drawing on the voice. It wasn’t always that way though. Back in the day, designers took a one-size-fits-all outlook, developing products for the broadest range of users possible. We now know this to be a deeply flawed approach, one that often excluded typically marginalised groups.

The focus has since pivoted toward fair, inclusive solutions that keep personal identifiers like disability in mind. Designers now hope to help the widest range of users achieve richer, empowered lives, incorporating full participation in tech — and if their solutions have mainstream application too, even better!

Ultimately, technology should help everyone, no matter their ability, age, race, gender, or economic status. Designing with this equitable, human-centric standard in mind is now common practice across the industry. Doing so is good for people, and it’s also good for business. Widespread adoption of the typewriter may have been a happy accident, but innovations like Alexa or her chatty rivals Siri and Google Assistant ending up in your home (alongside me and my breezy “hi there”) is more than a mere fluke.

So, tonight, when the time comes to make your virtual assistant play…oh, I don’t know, The Best of Talking Heads (to stick with our theme)…spare a brief thought for the original motivations behind the voice-activated gadgets making your life that little bit easier. And just think, without the power of speech, you’d actually need to shift from the sofa to get from Psycho Killer to the Road to Nowhere. And we can’t have that now, can we?

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position.