Touchscreen devices will become ‘retro’ in the age of Voice and AI

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When the very first iPhone landed way back in 2007, it set off an earthquake in the Experience Design world. It marked a fundamental shift in the way in which we engage with our mobile devices - a move from a key driven interface to a touchscreen platform.

Looking back, the shift in interaction from button to touch was well overdue and needed not only by users, but also by design teams charged with creating new and engaging experiences. Plenty of manufacturers had previously attempted to make the shift, but with many failed attempts to define the core technology requirements and interaction models that we now take for granted and expect within the devices in our pockets.

Quite simply, Apple tore down the barriers of entry to a touch enabled world and constructed the norms we know and love, and the rest as they say, is a monolithic glass slab of history.

So, why do I feel the need to take a nostalgic look way back to 2007 here in 2016? Well, the answer lies in the patterns we see taking place in 2016 that we believe will ultimately drive the next evolution of interaction with our digital devices and the experiences they are able to deliver.

The most familiar pattern is the stagnation of device design and the capability and depth of experiences they are able to deliver. How many ways are there to redesign a glass fronted rectangular block? Looking at some of the latest models, I’d say we’re getting pretty close to running out of ideas.

To put it bluntly, the touch screen form factor is getting old. The software inside may be getting slightly faster, and the camera slightly better, but I ultimately foresee that we are rapidly approaching a plateau within the mobile device space as to how deep an experience we can deliver within a touch enabled world.

At this point, many may point to the evolving wearables market, but in my mind this is simply adding screens and interactions to any place we believe it possible rather than a true shift in how we engage in our digital worlds.

To look to the future, we need to remember that the head down world of digital engagement we have created isn't a natural form of human interaction: it’s a form of interaction learned over a decade of technological progress, a mere speck of time in our technological evolution. It’s time for the human race to lift our heads and re-find the key driver of interaction that has been honed over millions of years of evolution: our voice.

Say it loud

In the past, I have personally discounted voice interaction as a passing gimmick, but the recent plateau and stagnation in touch interaction has lead me to believe that voice will genuinely drive the next fundamental shift in delivering a deeper level of screenless digital interaction, and once again, technology has finally caught up.

Reading this, you may be unimpressed with the current level of experience offered by Siri, Cortana and Google. However, our devices have silently learnt a new trick over the last few years: when we ask them to listen, they learn.

I vividly remember when Siri was first released as a Beta feature, with Android fanboys harshly criticising Apple for releasing a half-baked product. What I think they failed to notice is that due to the very nature of how humans speak, how we all have a slightly different ways of pronunciation and forming our language, any service driven by voice will ultimately be an experiment until it gets out into the wild and listens and learns from real people in real situations.

This leads us to an interesting point in the evolution of these services - they will evolve personalities as they evolve from our digital assistants to our digital partners. They will learn how to make us smile, they may make us cry, they may frustrate the hell out of us but, either way, they will be as individual as the user interacting with them as they learn every aspect of our personal needs and nuances. At this point of course I’m talking about the growth of Artificial Intelligence, which I truly believe is on the cusp of a golden age of development.

For an early example of our voice-driven screenless digital partner future, we need only look at Amazon’s Echo with Alexa, currently wowing Amazon customers in the US. While Alexa does have a companion app, primarily she is the first instance of a screen-less voice led assistant being brought to the mass market, with impressive results. Currently Alexa can control my Spotify playback, call me an Uber, tell me what my schedule looks like, add items to my shopping basket (thanks Amazon), and even early roads into voice activated home automation are being made with Philips HUE integration.

As Alexa's reach grows, as her personality develops and more third party services being enabled, I'm confident that she will become one of the key players listening out for our every command (and shopping needs) in the coming years. Huge respect to the design team at Amazon for genuinely creating a beachhead for future voice innovation, I’m genuinely keen to see how Amazon’s vision of an Alexa-enabled household rolls out.

20 years from now, our children will consider touchscreen devices to be retro, and using anything other their voice to interact with anything digital will become a novelty. On a personal level, consider this for a moment - how different would your working day be if everything could be done using natural language and voice interaction with your professional digital assistant?

Peter Honnor is strategy principal at 383.