Why Voice Assistants Could Help Solve Tech’s Gender Problem

In the face of increasing scrutiny from consumers, it seems the tech industry is still struggling with concept of diversity. From the shocking Google memo fall-out, to criticism of Apple’s Head of Diversity over comments she made that “white men can be diverse too”, the conversation shows no sign of abating. How can technology brands start to project a more diverse and appropriate voice? Could artificial intelligence provide the answer?

In an age where we interact with brands through an endless number of screens, there are progressively fewer human touch points between brand and consumers to explore this issue. In such a landscape, voice technology and AI assistants offer the chance to build a genuine and valuable human connection.

Despite this opportunity, it seems that gender has not hitherto been intelligently included as part of the discussion around AI. The majority of voice assistants we interact with have an implied gender, usually female, and this thoughtless gendering could be interpreted by consumers as regressive service design at worst, and ill-considered at best.

The female voices we know best – Siri, Alexa and Cortana – seem to have been selected by their parent brands for no other reason than that assistant role have historically been seen as female. IBM’s Watson is one of few examples of an AI assistant given a male personality, notable for its role as a highly intelligent program capable of beating Jeopardy’s greatest champions – but hardly a coup in the fight against sexist stereotypes.

As the furor around diversity and thoughtless gender representation grows, brands should be careful not to pigeon-hole their products with lazy stereotyping, and instead take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them by increasingly sophisticated technology. In doing so, brands can build a customer journey which is richer than ever, and is therefore more likely to build lasting loyalty with a diverse and demanding customer base.

This doesn’t mean avoiding making binary decisions about gender, but rather making them articulately and consciously – simply, does it make sense for your brand identity and your customers’ needs? A female voice can be a thoughtful decision; Nest’s smoke alarm bot, Nest Protect, was given a female voice for a practical reason. Research from the University of Dundee found that children respond best to human voices when warned of danger, such as their mother’s voice. As such, conscious and articulate gender decisions from Nest has potentially increased the effectiveness of its AI products in warning children of danger, whilst remaining true to their brand identity and purpose.

For some, this binary choice may not make sense. Thankfully, greater swathes of society are embracing non-binary values, and brands should feel free to follow suit. A few tech companies are already edging down this path – Capital One’s ENO is both a voiceless and genderless interface, telling users simply that it is “binary” when asked the question if it is a boy or a girl.

It’s clear that any gendering decision made by a brand is critical in creating a customer journey which can adequately respond to the diverse needs of tomorrow’s consumers.

However, it’s important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all, and this is no different when it comes to deciding how gender fits into the customer journey. Whichever decision is made with regards to gender, tech brands must ensure it is clear and intelligently considered, taking into account that fact that the voice they choose may soon speak to their consumers (literally) across every aspect of the consumer journey.