Stellar at SXSW: Now We're Talking

To keep us at the cutting-edge of customer experience world best practice, some of the Stellar team went to SXSW in Austin, Texas. In this series of blogs I’ll be exploring what we learnt at SXSW, and what it means for our clients. 

Dive in to the rest of the series here:


One of the key themes explored at SXSW was the rise in new user interfaces (UI), built on Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology. Right now, we control our computers and phones by pointing, clicking, swiping, poking and typing, but soon this will all change.

Soon, we’ll interact with our machines the same way we interact with each other—by talking.

It’s not as crazy an idea as you might think. Most young people now would find it absurd we used to have to type a memorized specific command line into MS-DOS to make a computer do anything, but this was the reality of the first computers. In the 1980s, the rise in Apple and Microsoft computers introduced Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), which allow the user to click on icons or other visual indicators to interact with electronic devices. And most recently, touchscreen GUI was brought to the masses by iPhones.

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But it’s been almost ten years since the first iPhone, and we learned at SXSW there is a new User Interface on the scene looking to muscle out the old school and established players — Conversational User Interfaces (CUI).  While it’s difficult - and frankly, unnecessary - to imagine a future totally without GUIs, their position as the be-all and end-all user interface is coming to an end. CUIs are on the cusp of becoming mainstream, and they will forever change the way we interact with our technology, and in doing so, change our lives.

Right now, there are two basic types of conversational interfaces. There are there are chatbots (which you type to) and voice assistants (which you talk to).

Chatbots are shedding their 'silly' reputation

Chatbots haven’t been seen as a very credible interface. They’re often built on weaker AI technology and developed for fun instead of business. However, recent development of chatbots for customer service has some amazing and practical uses and solves a lot of problems for businesses. Interacting with younger demographics across various messenger platforms can be difficult. Enter chatbots! They can gather basic information for a real interaction with a human: understanding exactly what happened and what the consumer wants. 

They can even be empowered to solve basic issues automatically across Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Twitter DM, Snapchat and via SMS or web-based channels. By blending smart software with a light human touch, consumers will have a better experience when they need customer service. 

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Screenshots of the Lark app in action

Over time, AI will get smarter and brands will trust it to solve issues for them. At SXSW we saw examples of this technology used in more complex environments and industries. Lark is a health app that not only automatically tracks your sleep and activity, but gives you encouraging messages along the way. You can ask health related questions and receive accurate answers. It was used as an example at SXSW to open discussion about the possible implications of AI and CUI to interact with customers in new ways. We saw other examples of how this technology is not just about simple interactions, but can be used for complex conversations — such as healthcare triage.

Voice assistants for hands-free and effort-free help

The second type of Conversational UI is voice.  Voice happens to be the most natural interface for humans – we come pre-installed with the hardware, learn the voice API to other humans by the age of two, and complete our language acquisition at roughly four. From then on, it’s vocabulary and style upgrades – as well as irony, sarcasm, and all the other fun forms of human communication.

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The technology is currently taking off, with Amazon leading the way. Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. It connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music and provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly. Imagine if Siri were always in the same place, always listening, and offered you no fall-back option of typing your request. Amazon's Echo is helping to usher in the habit of talking to appliances, with Google and Apple reportedly working on similar virtual assistant appliances as well.

Voice is hands free, even effort free; with actions and transactions performed as soon as you think them. Capital One demonstrated integration with Amazon Echo at SXSW, showing how you can sit in your lounge, completing secure banking transactions over voice. The possibilities for this tech are endless, with brands all scrambling to integrate and offer sales & service via this new UI.

There’s no UI in Team

What makes this technology even more exciting is how it can be enhanced by other emerging forms of technology. While voice recognition has existed for years, the interface is about to take off for two reasons –

  1. The Internet of things (IoT). Everyday objects are getting microchips and Internet connections, so why not microphones?
  2. AI will enable devices to not only understand everyday language, but also do powerful things with simple commands.

The possibilities include being able to self-serve from your living room via voice commands. This could include ordering a pizza, completing your banking, paying bills, then ordering some flowers for your partner. For the younger demographics (who consider talking on the phone too much work) they can message your brand on WhatsApp and be served via Chatbot.

As with all this technology, if at any point in an interaction you need to speak to a human or need assistance, they will be available with full context to be able to complete the transaction quickly. The future of contact centres will see these channels fully integrated within an omni-channel environment, meaning agents will be receiving transferred calls from IoT devices around the home, office or even hotel rooms to assist customers. 


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