Maarten delivered these insights as part of his introduction to the latest Open Voice Meetup at Mirabeau, Amsterdam, where over 150 voice fans gathered to learn about the juiciest developments in smart speakers. Google launched its Assistant service in Dutch in July, offering consumers in the Netherlands a new way to experience brands and interact with products and services. Hence the title for our third edition of Open Voice: Going Dutch.
Pioneering demosWhy would Dutch companies want to experiment with voice—and where should they start? Open Voice asked five pioneers from various industries to discuss their voice projects, to shed light on what they’ve been learning and what they’re planning to do next. While each of the following projects offers unique insights, each also leads to similar conclusions: less is more when you’re starting out, testing is vital throughout the development process, and choosing the right personality for your voice is essential for brand consistency.
- Why would a radio station experiment with voice when their entire business is already built around voice? Joeri Nortier, Product Manager at BNR Nieuwsradio, explained that radio and ad-based revenue isn’t a sustainable model for keeping their highly selective and tech-savvy audience engaged. “We decided to go for a full digital transformation,” he said. That strategy involves making all of BNR’s radio content available online, offering more niche content, and giving listeners a way to access their favorite content without any user interface. BNR dove into voice about 3 months ago, initially experimenting with Alexa but then turning to Google Assistant after realizing that Alexa can’t handle Dutch yet. Joeri pointed out that adapting to voice doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. With just 2 lines of code and a few hours of development work, BNR built a custom action for accessing their latest news, live radio, and every podcast. “What would be very interesting for you is to sit in your car in the morning and ask your Google Assistant for the latest news about a certain subject,” Joeri said. BNR recently launched Smart Radio, which already allows listeners to pull up content by subject. The next step for BNR is integrating voice so that Smart Radio can let users create a subject-based program or podcast on the fly.
- “Is now the time for us to focus on voice interaction?” PostNL wondered. The answer was a clear yes, said Tim Snoek, the product owner of chatbots—voice is instrumental to using available resources more efficiently, responding to customers more personally, and preparing for a voice-based future by learning from it now. In becoming a Google Assistant launch partner, PostNL had just 4 weeks to create their shippable product, a chatbot called Daan. Just ask, “Hallo Google, wanneer komt mijn parcel?” (“Hello Google, when will my package be delivered?”) and Daan will get you the answer. A bot could be the first point of contact for PostNL customers by 2021, but the chatbot is merely the first phase of voice for PostNL, which is building an entire conversational platform around Daan as a personal assistant. What bits of wisdom can PostNL impart about their discoveries thus far? First: Be upfront about your digital assistant, otherwise you will disappoint consumers. “If you’re not honest about that, people are going to expect something else.” Second: Make your chatbot relatable, or people will abandon it and call customer service. Third: Strengthen your voice initiatives by involving your customer service team with the product development.
- Albert Heijn was ahead of the Going Dutch curve by diving into creative experimentation early, to get a glimpse of what the future of voice could look like. The Albert Heijn team developed their own smart speaker, called Appie, introducing it last December at the Allerhande Kerstfestival, where demo staff wore t-shirts emblazoned with “Hey Appie, wat eten we vanavond?” (“Hey Appie, what are we eating tonight?”). They saw voice as a no-brainer. “We’re always keen to find new possibilities to answer customer questions,” said Stijn Verhoeven, who is Conversational Platform Designer for Albert Heijn Online. Around 800 people attended the grocery chain’s Christmas event, and the positive response to Appie proved they were onto something. So when Google asked Albert Heijn to jump on the voice bandwagon in March of this year, they rolled up their sleeves and went to work. First, they curated a team, pulling together their best java developers, a copywriter, and a conversation designer to build a layer between their backend and the Google side. Then, the team created a Google Assistant app revolving around bonus offers. Like the smart speaker, the app is called Appie. Say that chicken and broccoli are on sale and you want to know what you can make with those ingredients. Simply ask Appie for recipes, then add any needed items to your shopping list. Perhaps Stijn dropped a couple of hints about Albert Heijn’s next steps by mentioning that Appie doesn’t yet work with English and isn’t yet optimized for smart speakers.
- “Make it personal” is the operating slogan at KRO-NCRV. It’s also advice that Vera Holland gave during her presentation as Online Content Specialist/Product Owner for the Dutch public broadcaster. “We want to be where our audience is, to tell stories,” Vera said about KRO’s venture into voice, noting that their audience is increasingly using devices to watch and listen to shows. The TV hit BinnensteBuiten was a natural fit to explore where voice and personability intersect, since the program aims to inspire happier, healthier living. The plan: Make cooking easier and more enjoyable by bringing one of the show’s chefs to life in the kitchen. Over a six-week process, Vera’s team developed a voice-enabled assistant to walk home cooks through a recipe. To lend it extra charm, they favored using the real voice of Sharon de Miranda. “If we couldn’t have used our own voice, we probably wouldn’t have made this action,” she said, explaining that her team’s primary goal isn’t providing recipes but bringing new show experiences to their audience. One recipe flow features 30 or 40 steps, so “Praat met chef-kok BinnensteBuiten” (“Talk to the chef from BinnensteBuiten”) grew from a Wizard of Oz method, with one person standing behind the cook and calling out recipe instructions. Since Google Assistant and Home don’t currently support the creation of custom voices in Dutch, KRO–NCRV recorded audio beforehand, then played the audio sample that correlated with the question or action. Vera advises voice teams to rely on clear questions and to build in variation for flows with many steps—people will forget where they are, and you don’t want the repeated instructions to sound too repetitive.
- People aren’t walking into banks any more, and lots of banking alternatives are popping up, making it easy for people to bank whenever they want to, from wherever they are. So, how does a bank survive in such a rapidly changing landscape? Daan Gönning, a freelance digital transformation expert, and Finbar Hage, who oversees data-driven commerce for Rabobank, found an innovative answer in voice. “Reality is pretty simple for us,” Finbar said. “If we’re not there where our customers are, we’ll stop being relevant. It’s survival—and it’s fun.” In leading Rabobank’s voice project, Daan and Finbar started working with Google 8 months ago, then intensified their collaboration in the run-up to the Google Assistant launch. The duo intentionally formed a diverse team that included the usual suspects (product developers and IT folks) as well as compliance officers, legal advisors, data scientists, and marketing staff. Their demo highlighted how customers can ask for their account balances (“Wat is mijn saldo?”). What’s up next for them? Adding payment options. Like everyone else who presented at Going Dutch, Daan and Finbar stressed that their voice efforts are a work in progress—there’s still a lot to learn from user feedback. Reflecting the collaborative spirit at Open Voice meet-ups, they invited the audience to help them test and improve their assistant.
Google Assistant in the Netherlands: A Behind-the-Scenes Look“I want to make sure that Google Search is really, really Dutch,” said Tim van de Rijdt, a product manager at Google in Amsterdam, where he has been working for the last nine years. His current work in search spans everything from local weather (something the Dutch always want to know about!) to campaigns. Dutch people are already using Google Assistant in English, showing a clear demand for an Assistant in the Netherlands.
Tim opened his 45-minute presentation with a quote by Google CEO Sundar Pichai that encapsulated the backbone of voice: “In the next 10 years, we’ll shift to a world that is AI-first.”
Why AI-first? It took manual work to build Google Assistant (“a lot of blood, sweat, and tears”), but machine learning is vital to improving it: with any local Assistant, cultural knowledge must be incorporated. “Many parts of the Assistant are only possible because of machine learning,” Tim said, explaining that it’s not feasible to hard-code every interaction, let alone a natural sounding voice.
On a phone, you have a screen as a fall-back—you can, for example, pick which John Smith you want to call. On a smart speaker, there can be ambiguities on what you’re looking for. When it comes to Google Home, these are the challenges to solve in the Dutch language, and the good news is that the Google Home device will start supporting Dutch (Tim would like you to know that he’s pushing for Home to launch in the Netherlands before Christmas).
“It’s still the early days,” Tim noted. “We’re looking at creativity from Assistant users and brands that build things to push this forward.” What’s important to know about voice as you initiate projects? Here are some of Google’s pointers:
- Voice is action-driven: a question to the Assistant is 40 times more likely to be action-oriented than a search query—people ask the Assistant to do something for them
- People expect the Assistant to be conversational: the more your brand can connect with your users, the more helpful and relevant it will be
- Daily routines matter a lot: people like to keep track of the weather, and they want to stay on top of their productivity through calendars
- New devices lead to new behaviors: voice isn’t voice only; the device will influence the user’s interaction
- Voice is universal: if you can speak, you can use the Assistant—no skills required
Watch the aftermovie:
Stay in the LoopThe next Open Voice is scheduled for November 12 (we’ll be sharing the full details about it at openvoice.nl).
About Open VoiceMirabeau, Maarten Lens-FitzGerald (Conva) and Sam Warnaars (aFrogleap) are founders of Open Voice: a series of interactive meetups in which we will explore the possibilities of the new channel of voice.
Together we enable others to share best practices and learnings, show how voice and conversations fit into the customer journey and connect the people in the emerging voice industry.
Read the recaps of the first and second edition of Open Voice.
Do you want to learn more about Open Voice? Get in touch with Hayo Rubingh .