Top 5 Reasons Voice-First Will Change the Future of Enabling Tech


Blog Editor’s Update, May 2019: Google recently announced initiatives that would make voice technology more accessible to users who are nonverbal or have speech impairments. It’s exciting to see them address some of these barriers! Read more here.

For designers in the enabling technology world, usability is the holy grail. Enabling technology exists to improve the functional capabilities of the user – so it should be easy to use, right? Unfortunately, some enabling technologies are difficult both to learn and to use.

And so we ask: How can we make devices easier to use, more seamless with the user’s environment, and more useful? How can we make it easier for the user to meet their goals?

The Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot.

The Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot.

In the last five years, especially with the arrival of the Amazon Echo in 2014, it has become increasingly obvious that Voice-First technology is going to change enabling technology completely. These speech-enabled interactions, designed for delivery through voice assistant software and voice-activated devices, have already begun to revolutionize care for people who are aging in place or living with disabilities.

One reason for this rapid change? Advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP) have made these technologies much easier to use. Before these advances, people could only use specific, highly formulaic commands with digital assistants.  

Here are five reasons why enabling technology will be deeply affected by Voice-First technology.

1.     Voice-First is more natural.

Voice-First isn’t just a new way to type. Voice-First is a whole new interface. Rather than typing or interacting with other user interfaces, the voice user interface allows us to be “liberated” from our screens. Users of voice-activated devices regularly report choosing to use them because voice control is more natural than typing, and because it is a more conversational experience.

This makes the technology more accessible to users across the board, not just senior adults and people with disabilities.

However, ease of use is incredibly important to seniors in particular. Senior adults often miss whole eras in technology development because they are looking for function and solutions that don’t involve a huge learning curve. Senior adults aren’t the only ones choosing function over fashion: In 2016, flip phone sales actually went up by 2 million from 2015.

2.     Voice-First can provide a sense of human connection.

Because Voice-First technology is so conversational, using this type of technology may have ramifications for the user’s emotional well-being and sense of social connection.

In one study of voice-enabled PERS/medical alert usage, researchers discovered that users simply “found it helpful to hear their loved one’s voice in emergencies.” Another study by the AARP Foundation is determining whether using Voice-First technology reduces isolation and improves health outcomes; whether people “feel less lonely talking to Alexa.”

Intuition Robotics has already begun piloting an “active aging voice-activated companion” called ElliQ that is designed to notice the emotional status and behavior of an older adult. As Ted Fischer, VP of Business Development at Hasbro’s Joy for All puts it: “In the future, voice-enabled technology will assist with companionship.”

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, loneliness is “one of the key problems researchers and companies are trying to solve with digital companions. Loneliness is a significant predictor of poor health, and it is widespread, affecting more than one-third of older adults in the U.S.”

3.     Voice-First is more accessible to users with limited mobility.

Depending on what kind of mobility issues a user has, being able to use voice activation may seriously improve the user’s ability to navigate their world.

Many of our enabling tech clients at SimplyHome are working within the parameters of limited mobility due to cerebral palsy or spinal cord injury. Being able to control the home environment ­– thermostat, lights, electronics, doors/access, etc. ­– with one’s voice assistant can mean the difference between living independently and living with 24/7 staff assistance.

This type of interface is also transformational for the aging population: “In general, the ability to talk remains highly effective for all aging populations at a time when physical movement, eyesight, and hearing often decline.” – John Loughnane, Chief of Innovation, Commonwealth Care Alliance.

4. Voice-First is steadily integrating with healthcare and wellness solutions.

It’s widely accepted that Telehealth will revolutionize healthcare for rural populations in the United States, providing greater access to better health outcomes. But what about those non-rural patients, such as seniors or people with disabilities, for whom the drive to a doctor is still an obstacle or an impossibility?

This is another area of rapid development for Voice-First technology. The applications to healthcare are seemingly limitless. They range from the simple – such as setting voice reminders for users to take medications and check blood sugar levels – to the very complex, with voice assistants conducting extensive conversations on health history and current symptoms, then taking an action based on those responses (sending a prescription to the pharmacy, for instance, or calling a doctor on your behalf). Existing technology that already seeks to provide this type of interactions includes ElliQ, Jibo, LifePod, and Sensely’s Molly.

One program’s success speaks volumes: “Element Care, an elder-care program in Boston, last year began dispatching digital avatars, instead of nurses, to help some patients manage their chronic conditions at home. Kendra Seavey, Element Care’s clinical administrative manager, estimates that the center has saved $150,000 in emergency-room costs by assigning avatars to patients who make the most frequent hospital trips.” Worth noting: The staff at Element Care believes that many of those hospital visits were due to anxiety and loneliness.

5.     Voice-First will “learn” the user.

Voice-First technology already uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to know which user is currently interacting with the device. Soon, Voice-First tech will be able to remember what you have already told it and remind you what you need to know. Rather than having a limited or no retained context, the device will have a context of prior statements, a profile of you as a user, and a relationship personalized to you.

What might this look like? On the most basic level, it could provide some much-needed prompting and interaction, says Jody Holtzman of Longevity Venture Advisers: “Perhaps an offering like ElliQ will see that you have been sitting for a while and say that you should consider taking a walk.”

For those seeking to live independently with the challenges of aging, or while living with disabilities, the ability of technology to learn its user is good news. If the enabling technology in your home can learn what your daily routines are, and notice when something is off, you may be able to address the multitude of concerns that come with living independently, such as fall risks, needing to call someone for help, controlling your environment, and managing a chronic condition.

These are exciting times to be in the enabling technology field! If you want to learn more about Voice-First, we relied heavily on this article from the Wall Street Journal as well as an excellent study called “The Future of Voice First” (from Aging in Place Technology Watch) as sources for this blog post.

Ready to learn more about enabling technology? Find out how SimplyHome already addresses your concerns about living independently with our enabling technology solutions.