Do People Really Use Voice Commands on Mobile Devices?

At this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, Google SVP Amit Singhal talked about how his company aspired to build what he referred to as “the ‘Star Trek’ computer.” For those who didn’t spend their formative years glued to the adventures of Starfleet, the ship computers on “Star Trek” allowed space voyagers to ask a question in natural language (“Computer, what is the atmosphere on that planet down there?”) and receive an answer in return.

As anyone who’s spent a lot of time around mobile devices knows, that computer is more of a reality than ever. The Google Now app (available for Android and iOS) allows users to ask questions, as does Apple’s Siri; Microsoft’s Windows Phone has offered voice support for quite some time. Voice controls are a major selling point when it comes to software platforms. But how do people actually use such features?

Research firm Forrester recently surveyed 5,116 information workers in Europe and North America, and found that 37 percent of them used voice commands with their smartphones; however, only 11 percent said they used voice “all the time” or “regularly.”

“Topping the list of applications at 56 percent is texting—a frequent choice for on-the-go communications,” Forrester analyst JP Gownder wrote in a July 1 posting on his Forrester blog. “Next on the list are search (46 percent) and navigation/directions (40 percent). All three of these fall into what we can call short-task computing activities—sending a text, executing a search, or finding directions each require little direct attention, and are often completed while on the go.”

Taking/recording notes came in fourth on that list, with 38 percent. “Overall, our survey shows that a sizable percentage of workers are starting to embrace voice command,” Gownder wrote. “Yet it will be some time before voice controls join keyboards and mice as computing mainstays.”

Why is that? The vicious platform wars between Google, Microsoft, and Apple are partially to blame: with each company attempting to differentiate its voice-command platform with exclusive features, there’s a lot of fragmentation (and confusion) within the segment. “Until users know what to expect from voice control, adoption and acceptance will be hindered,” Gownder concluded.

As voice features become more ubiquitous—Google Glass is the first of what could be several “wearable electronics” devices that emphasize speaking as a means of control—a lot of that confusion could fade. But unless some interoperability is introduced, it’s likely that the segment will stay fragmented for some time to come.


Image: Forrester