Word to the wise: how voice tech is making the web more accessible for older users

Voice tech is making the web accessible for many older people and people with restricted eyesight.

The world of online is being illuminated for the first time for many older people and people with restricted eyesight as voice technology removes previous barriers to entry. So how about we stop ignoring them when it comes to marketing on such devices?

For partially-sighted Robin Spinks, the idea that voice technology could bring life-changing benefits is more than just talk – it’s already a reality.

As senior innovation and technology manager at the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Spinks has been immersing himself in voice technology for years to understand how it can make life easier for himself and for others. Now, with the rise of devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, he believes voice’s potential is finally being realized.

“[They’ve] created a whole new window of opportunity for people who have restricted eyesight,” he says. “You’re just using the most important instrument you were born with – your voice. It’s quite liberating.”

Spinks has witnessed first-hand how smart speakers can make the everyday tasks many of us take for granted – like reading the news, checking train times and setting alarms – so much easier for those who are visually impaired. He benefits himself from voice commands that allow him to effortlessly adjust the lighting in his home to a level comfortable for his limited vision. “For the many blind and partially-sighted people who have not been computer users – older people who are losing their sight for example – they’re not faced with a learning curve where you need to assimilate a multitude of keyboard commands or swipes or other behaviors. People are very receptive to this kind of technology. They’re delighted to find that there is almost no learning curve.”

The RNIB recognized the potential of voice technology early on. In fact, Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, owes something of its makeup to the charity’s knack of identifying top tech talent. “We did a big exercise several years ago to uncover the best example of human-sounding text-to-speech on the market,” says Spinks. “We discovered that to be a little Polish company called Ivona. We introduced Ivona to some senior Amazon executives and within a few months we’d been told that they’d purchased the company.” Today Ivona helps to power Amazon’s voice interface and Spinks wears a wry smile every time he hears Alexa’s familiar tones.

Spinks is in regular conversations with Amazon and Google about the potential impact of their technologies and how they can provide better access to them. And among blind and partially-sighted people, the potential market for smart speakers is “much larger” than the market for smartphones, he says. “I don’t want to stare at a screen if I can do the interaction by voice. I think we’re beginning to move in that direction. People are waking up to the fact that the market, the opportunity, is larger than people recognize.”

It’s not just the RNIB that is exploring the possibilities of voice. Hampshire County Council is trialling a customized version of the Amazon Echo with 50 of its social care clients over the course of this year to understand how it can help people with life-limiting conditions such as multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease. As Graham Allen, the English county’s director of adult social care, put it at a recent conference: “It’s about enabling people to live well rather than simply live.”

Global tech giant Accenture ran a similar three-month pilot with a focus group of 60 people at least 70 years old late last year. The testing phase helped identify how smart speakers could find solutions to some of the most challenging tasks within the home. “With the help of Age UK London, we identified the more common challenges of everyday life for older people – from setting daily reminders to the heartache of loneliness – and applied AI to create a human-centered platform to provide support and assistance,” says Laetitia Cailleteau, head of Accenture Liquid Studio London.

Accenture says feedback from its program – which used the Amazon Echo Show to deliver the services – was positive, with comments from participants including “it’s like having a friend in the other room – I’d be lost without it now” from an 87-year-old woman from Merseyside and “it’s reinforcing my autonomy” from a 76-year-old man from London.

Age is no barrier to entry for voice technology. In fact, according to data supplied to The Drum by YouGov, a third (33%) of UK smart speaker owners are over 55, dwarfing take-up among 18 to 24 year-olds (9%) and 25 to 34 year-olds (14%) in the so-called millennial demographics. Despite this appetite, there’s an almost blanket absence of older people in advertising campaigns for such devices where – you guessed it – those ubiquitous millennials predominate.

“The over-55 age group can often be overlooked when it comes to product marketing,” says Russell Feldman, YouGov’s head of digital, media and technology. “However, tech businesses should be aware that this age group are more likely to be cash rich, with no mortgage and no children at home and therefore have a greater disposable income. They may also have a greater amount of free time to spend buying and using products that appeal to them.

“For all of these reasons the over-55s were the first age group to adopt the iPad when it first entered the market in 2010. There is no doubt that they are a crucial bracket to target with marketing.”

For now, it is people like Spinks who are introducing voice assistants to those who might not yet realize what these products can do for them. “There’s a huge amount of money to be made for those companies by embracing and appealing to people of much older age groups,” he says.

“We’re at the beginning of that. It’s starting to happen but it’s very early days. What we know is there’s a very large number of blind and partially sighted people who have been attracted to and have subsequently purchased devices like the Echo. Word spreads quickly.”

This feature originally appeared in The Drum's July issue, the Voice issue.

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