Smart speakers are playing an important role in combatting loneliness for people who live on their own, according to new Office of Communications (Ofcom) research.
Latest data shows that smart speaker ownership nearly doubled during the pandemic, increasing from 22% of households in 2020 to 39% earlier this year. But why do people buy them, and why do others choose not to?
To examine competition among digital personal assistants, Ofcom talk in depth to 100 smart speaker owners – and 15 non-owners who tested one – to find out how people use and feel about them.
- Alexa, what do people use you for?
Ofcom research participants mainly used their smart speakers to listen to music, radio, news and weather updates. Latest industry figures show that 13% of all radio listening hours are now via smart speakers. People generally felt they listened to the radio more than they had done before, and said their smart speaker allowed them to listen to a wider range of stations than previously.
Some described their speaker as being like a companion, particularly if they lived alone. They felt it was good for combatting loneliness and liked the fact they could talk to their speakers.
“Living alone it’s like having a friend in the house.” – 55–64 year-old Man, Smart speaker user (Amazon / Alexa), West Midlands
Some disabled people said a smart speaker had had a significant impact on their lives, giving them greater independence and helping them manage – and even improve – their conditions and abilities.
“It really is the difference between maintaining independence around the house… my carers don’t have to keep getting up every five minutes. Like this evening, I was able to just ask it to put these lights on. Years ago, before I had that facility… I would have had to ask people to do things manually.” – 25–34 year-old Man, Smart speaker user (Amazon / Alexa), Southwest England
- Reasons to be fearful?
People who don’t have a smart speaker either didn’t see the point or saw it as a luxury rather than a necessity. However, a few were concerned about being listened to, although this was more of a secondary concern rather than a main barrier.
The feeling of being listened to was further exacerbated for some by their speaker sometimes talking even when the ‘wake word’ had not been used. Some people expressed concerns about the potential for criminals to use smart speakers to steal data and hack their systems, potentially to steal identities or bank details. A few mentioned that they had heard of other technology – such as baby monitors and routers – being hacked.
However, most used their speakers with little concern and did not think about risks on a day-to-day basis.
- Hey Siri, are people rude to you?
A large proportion of participants anthropomorphise their smart speakers, referring to them as ‘he’ or ‘she’. Some people also ask questions in a conversational manner, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and even read ‘intent’ or ‘personality’ in responses and mistakes.
However, not everyone felt affectionate towards their smart speaker, seeing it more of a servant than a helpful friend.
“It’s a bit of machinery. I wouldn’t thank my hacksaw for going through a bit of wood. I wouldn’t thank a screwdriver for screwing it in.” – 25–34 year-old Man, Smart speaker user (Google Nest), Yorkshire and the Humber
Also, most did get frustrated because their speaker did not always respond correctly to commands, either ignoring them or doing the ‘wrong’ thing. This was particularly felt to be the case by people with strong regional accents.
- Ok Google, what about the news?
Ofcom’s latest data shows that 27% of smart speaker owners get their news from their device.
Most of the research participants saw their smart speaker news as an addition – rather than alternative – to more in-depth news coverage, using it for instant headlines, but returning to TV, print or online news for more detail if needed.
There was a mix of views as to the extent that people liked their speakers to personalise or tailor their content. Some appreciated the improved user experience they felt this gave them, while others found it unsettling and disliked relinquishing too much control.
“It is important to be able to tailor the news provider to your particular preferences and political leanings. That’s a personal and democratic choice that I wouldn’t like to have made for me.” – 35–44 year-old Woman, Smart speaker user (Google Nest), Southwest England
In a recent study of choice in news, Ofcom identified concerns around the impact of online news ‘gatekeepers’ – particularly social media, such as Facebook, but also search engines and news apps such as Apple News and Google News.
1 Ofcom Technology Tracker: 4,003 adults interviewed, aged 16+, across the United Kingdom, between 1 February and 8 May 2022.
2 Between August and October 2022, this research consisted of a 3-week 100-person online forum with smart speaker users, followed by focus groups with around half the forum participants. It also included 15 depth interviews with non-users of smart speakers. These participants were sent smart speakers to try out; and follow-up interviews captured their experiences.
3 Source: RAJAR Q3 2022.
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