Generation Voice: How Growing Up With The Tech Will Change Assistant Design Paradigm

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, October 29, 2019

Voice assistants are set to be used by 36.6% of the U.S. population by 2021, which has led to considerable discussion around the core group driving this growth — kids.

eMarketer projected that 1.5 million kids under the age of 11 would be using a smart speaker at least once a month, with that figure growing to 2.2 million by 2020.

With voice assistants being so embedded in their daily lives, children are beginning to emerge as a distinct segment of assistant users, and will undoubtedly continue adopting the technology at a high rate.

As today’s children grow into adults, their foundational experiences with voice technology will have significant implications on all consumer behaviors.

Here are the critical tenets we must understand to grasp how children think of these devices and assistants today.

Voice assistants are a part of the family

Children’s relationships to voice assistants are extremely personal -- kids using voice-enabled devices tend to anthropomorphize them, forming unique bonds with the object.

In 2017, a small group test at MIT found that younger children tend to address voice assistants as if they were people, asking them their favorite color or age.

Adults have been incorporating voice assistants into the lives of their children every day, with 22% of parents considering them to be part of the family. Anecdotes about parents’ usage of voice assistants include everything from playtime moderator to bedtime facilitator when it comes to their kids.

With devices sounding like humans and parents treating them like family, voice assistants -- not quite human, yet not quite computer -- are becoming something else, an "other" that is always there and happy to help them anytime.

A developing kid’s ecosystem

The kids-voice ecosystem is still maturing, yet there are early signs of experience types that children prefer. Kids are known to be using voice for experiences such as gaming, education and various forms of entertainment, from answering questions and telling jokes to playing audiobooks and podcasts.

Beyond kids’ personal usage of smart speakers, professionals are beginning to integrate voice assistants directly into their work. This is especially true in the education field, where startups such as Bamboo Learning are leaning into the technology and leveraging it to redefine the way students engage with early-age curriculum such as reading and analyzing stories.

As kids continue to grow up with voice assistants connected to their education, entertainment and everyday tasks -- at home and outside of it -- they will expect these services to be present everywhere, handling almost every area of their lives.

Finding a balance between assisting and doing

In 2018, Amazon introduced Amazon FreeTime on Alexa alongside the kids edition Echo Dot devices. This provided parents with a way to control content accessible through the devices as well as monitoring features such as activity reviews and time limits.

FreeTime also introduced a feature called "Magic Word," which would encourage children to speak with Alexa devices using polite words such as please and thank you. If they did this, the device would reply with niceties in return.

Google announced a similar feature, "Pretty Please" mode, as part of its Family Link offering later that same year.

While many approve of these features to holistically teach children good behaviors, others suspect that they aren’t the best avenue forward. In his 2018 article, author Mike Elgan argues that there are unintended consequences resulting from kids learning manners or behaviors from voice assistants.

This puts an onus on the parents to balance learned behaviors for children via voice technology and ensuring kids recognize the difference between humans and devices.

Another major research area regarding kids and voice assistants is their impact on a child’s learning and problem-solving skills. There are parents who value the exploratory nature of voice assistants and the ability for kids to get answers that quickly help them through tasks. On the other hand, voice-enabled devices could also impact the way in which children come to conclusions.

Voice assistant providers and experience designers must strike the right balance between a go-to companion with the answers and an experiential medium that assists with learning. We have seen what can happen when companies ignore these issues and try and create a pure assistant.

Emerging Considerations

Despite the rapid progress voice has made with young children, many see privacy and future regulations for the technology as a keystone that will define the relationship with voice assistants and children.

Because the privacy landscape around kids’ engagement with voice assistants is in need of definition, some providers have created devices specifically built on the premise that they are more secure than mainstream tech company offerings.

The ethical design of data collection and data usage is what will enable voice assistant experiences to become increasingly personalized for children, which is why this debate is so crucial. This way, we can envision a world where voice assistants help kids learn, advance their social skills and develop their cognitive abilities.

As parents, educators and experience designers work to find optimal ways to engage and assist kids through childhood and into adolescence with voice technology, the way children function on a developmental level will fundamentally be altered.


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