Tuesday 16th April 2019


How Voice Technology is blurring the public and private

We’ve recently completed research into news consumption on voice technology in several markets for the Reuters Institute’s ‘Future of Voice’ report.

Conversations about News are always about so much more. Touching on politics, values, hopes and fears for the future – getting right to the heart of how we construct a worldview. When we spoke to audiences about News and Voice Tech, we found some fascinating tensions between the private and public worlds of users.

What we’re comfortable with

Although smart speakers have reached around 10% of households in the UK and 14% in the US, and mobile assistant usage is increasing rapidly we’re still very early in the tech life cycle. We found many users – even the most enthusiastic about the benefits – still feel a bit uneasy with their devices. Compared to screens, Voice feels more intimate and takes getting used to. And it requires a trade-off with privacy on multiple levels.

In every market we heard scare stories and even downright paranoia about passive data collection: we heard variations of ‘She overhears everything’ everywhere we went. But these worries can quite easily be pushed into the back of mind.

Across all markets we’ve also seen an instinctive dislike of the devices piping up unexpectedly. This felt deeper and perhaps more visceral than just frustration with malfunctioning technology. Users want their voice devices in receive mode only – the need for total control is universal.

The ends of the spectrum

In the US – as everywhere else, we saw plenty of ‘big picture’ privacy concerns about big data collection and surveillance. But at a personal level, this contrasted with the streets of Manhattan echoing with a cacophony of New Yorkers talking to Siri, asking for directions, sending messages, making diary appointments and calling up articles.

In Germany we saw the exact opposite. We found very stubborn resistance to the idea of using Voice outside the home even for innocuous uses. Even in the home there are reservations about privacy:

“Do I want everyone else knowing what I’m searching for? Even selecting it – even if it’s exactly what you want to listen to” – Voice Speaker Heavy User, Berlin

For now the UK sits in the middle. We might be a bit more comfortable but we’re still a long way off from using Voice as openly and publicly as the US. Crucially, the ideal Voice technology interface and Voice-led media platform will feel totally different in each market.

Bursting the bubble

Publishers are still learning and experimenting to find what media formats work best on voice. We found the use of Voice for news is still fairly conservative – confined mostly to radio listening rather than new voice-driven formats (Reuters, 2018).

We saw use of Voice technology for both broadcast and more personal media across every market, but the voice interface does disrupt the ‘bubble’ associated with some audio formats.

Exact figures for podcast listening on smart speakers are guarded, but remain lower than might be expected. Podcasts are an intensely personal experience, drawing users into a ‘bubble’ – in theory no problem, but just the act of requesting it and listening felt less natural than asking for a radio station.

Flash briefings meet the halfway stage between broadcast and personal and we saw in each country how enthusiastic adopters had built them into their routines.

With the boundaries blurred between public and private, broadcast and narrowcast, Voice is opening up exciting new space for the next generation on news formats to innovate.


Thirsty for more...