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Is Your Brand Ready For Zero UI?

Just when marketers have become used to the mobile era, cue the post-mobile era.

While it’s unlikely consumers will be ditching their smartphones in 2017, some see a near-future of “Zero UI” in which screens are used less and elements of the smartphone are absorbed into devices embedded everywhere that read our movements, glances, voice, “and even thoughts,” according to Fjord designer Andy Goodman, who coined the term in 2015. 

There’s some debate about how prevalent such communication will be even a decade from now--not to mention whether machines will read our minds or we’ll want them to. However, the technology already exists that lets us talk and gesture to get our machines to do what we want.

This brand new form of communication presents a possible opportunity for advertisers. For high-touch brands in the financial services industry, for example, a nonvisual interface could foster brand loyalty and provide upsell opportunities by offering investment advice and help meet financial goals. If you wanted to eat out, for instance, you can ask your phone “Can I afford to grab dinner in a restaurant tonight?” For consumer packaged goods brands, being an option in a Zero UI device could be the equivalent of occupying shelf space at a major retailer. Brands of all types could take advantage of this close proximity to consumers based on their personal data.

Of course, a lot depends on consumers’ comfort with this idea.

Voice Control
The mind-reading aspect of Zero UI may seem far-fetched, but voice control is here today. Apple introduced its voice-activated technology, Siri, in 2011, and since then Google and Microsoft have each followed suit. At first the technology was fairly primitive, but it has come a long way. The word-error rate for voice-recognition systems hit 6.3% last year, which is about the same as humans. That’s where the “zero user interface” comes in. Up until now, we have needed interfaces ranging from punch cards and touchscreens to keyboard and mice to communicate with machines. Now we can just talk to them.

A key inflection point was the late 2015 introduction Amazon Echo, a voice-controlled, cylindrical product that has been a big hit. Before Christmas, it was in 4% of all U.S. households.

That was just the beginning of the home automation trend. In November 2016, Google introduced Google Home. Microsoft partnered with speaker maker Harmon Kardon to offer Echo-like functionality for its Cortana voice-control system. Apple’s HomeKit also lets consumers use Siri to turn on lights, lock the doors, and communicate with smart devices.

That may provide an entrée for marketers. Amazon Echo already has 7,000 “skills”--the company’s term for apps. You can order a Domino’s pizza, learn about Grange Insurance, and check your bank balance at Capital One all by asking Alexa. Some have compared “her” skills to the next App Store.

As it becomes more common to talk to devices in your home, the real powerwill remain with Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Google, which can decide which brands are the default, said Tim Tuttle, CEO of MindMeld, an AI firm. “When you tell Google Home, ‘I want to order some food,’ the model that Google has is it will decide which delivery service to invoke based on a lot of things,” he told CMO.com.

Those include proximity and preference but also, perhaps, a paid placement. (A Google rep said that such sponsorships are “not something that is currently part of the Google Home experience; however, the team continues to explore new actions on the device.”)

John Frémont, global digital project lead and group director at Fjord Austin, said it would be a “really bad misstep” to open up any of the voice-controlled services to advertising. “It’s a little bit too personal a medium for that,” he told CMO.com.

Perhaps, but Jeremy Hull, VP of products and services at digital marketing agency iProspect, told CMO.com that he foresees telling Alexa to buy “coffee” will translate to “Starbucks” if Alexa knows that’s your favorite brand. You might also ask Alexa to tell you about competing offers, as in, “Do you want to hear about this deal from Caribou Coffee?”

“The big key for all of this is that it really changes how advertising works,” Hull told CMO.com. “Previously you were trying to be as relevant as possible, and we as marketers were happy with a pretty good relevancy rate.” However, in a voice-control world there’s no room for such errors, he said. Consumers won’t put up with it.

True Zero UI
Frémont said he doesn’t believe voice will become the next frontier for marketers. It’s a novelty, he believe, too limited in function and impractical to become a replacement for screens. Voice control is problematic in cars, for instance, because of road noise.

Rather than tie voice control, gestures, and facial expressions together as Zero UI, Frémont sees Zero UI as less a design idea than a gateway to AI. “It’s really about understanding contextual information,” he said, “unlocking all that data that’s available and being able to have that machine be predictive enough to be able to give me notifications very quickly and in my environment.”

Over time, a pervasive computing system will be able to make very accurate predictions and suggestions about purchases. For instance, a smart refrigerator with object recognition capability would be able to notify and ask the user, “You’re out of milk. Do you want to buy some? (Y/N)”

Frémont’s vision of a Zero UI future isn’t so much a world without screens as a world with fewer reasons to check your screen because you’re fairly certain you will be notified if something important needs addressing.

That isn’t necessarily fertile ground for traditional advertising. “From an advertising standpoint, it’s going to be challenging,” he said. “It’s about being able to connect purchases with future purchases.” The model, he said, is a well-qualified sales associate at a clothing store who is able to accessorize your purchase and make intelligent suggestions based on experience.

Such suggestions require data. Marketers are already aware of the importance of compiling and employing data, but Zero UI will up the stakes. The catch is that Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are going to receive the quality data that will make suggestions truly intuitive, leaving marketers to try and catch up.

“We’ve sort of given up and given them everything,” said Frémont, of the four tech giants. “The sandwich shop down the road doesn’t have that data.”

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