Digital assistants have become part of the mainstream tech world, and ever since Siri entered the scene courtesy of Apple in 2011 it has been socially acceptable to bark orders into our phones. Indeed, there are now numerous digital assistants for us to choose from—including Alexa, Cortana, and Echo—all of which are powered by artificial intelligence algorithms and activated by voice commands.
However, up until now, the relationship we have with our digital assistants has been a two-actor affair. But we’re starting to see the beginning of companies getting involved in the digital assistant arrangement. First, it was Dominos, which paired up with Alexa to allow users to order a regular pizza order. With just a few words, a pizza delivery man would show up at your door. And just recently, Starbucks announced that it’s possible to pre-order your regular purchase at a previously chosen location simply by telling Alexa what you want, with its “Starbucks re-order” feature.
Apparently, voice ordering has been a broad ambition of Starbucks’, which told Mashable that it hoped to roll out voice ordering for all its iOS app users later in 2017. In a press release the company said, “These initial releases are easy to use providing a direct benefit to customers within their daily routine and we are confident that this is the right next step in creating convenient moments to complement our more immersive formats. We expect to learn a lot from these experiences and to evolve them over time.”
Indeed, the “immersive format” of ordering, or integrating a digital assistant with an external commerce, holds great promise for ubiquitous brands like Starbucks. By removing yet another barrier to ordering your next latte or pizza, it further entices consumers to spend more of their hard-earned dollars at these outlets. In a hugely competitive marketplace, every little advantage like that can help significantly. However, we’re still in the early stages of this trend, and the question remains as to how consumers will take to this uber-convenient feature. Equally, it’s worth asking if there are any ethical or technical obstacles to making sure it doesn’t get, well, creepy.
The first obstacle is that the service actually has to be seamless. Upon the Dominoes ordering launch last year, The Verge rather comically noted that it might actually just be easier to call them up: “You have to establish a preset order inside the Domino’s app, and then you have to remember to say this convoluted phrase to place an order: “Alexa, open Domino’s and place my Easy Order.” That’s just not at all a chill thing to shout across the room while drunkenly playing cards / watching football / looting a horde of kobolds in your weekly D&D session. But at least you won’t have to argue about toppings.”
All jokes about supreme laziness aside, it’s also vital that the permissions are not over-arching and that one can’t “automatically” order a pepperoni pizza by accident. If consumers start to feel that AI is doing things for them they don’t want, that could be when they turn away from it in favor of more conventional means. Equally, consumers mustn’t feel that companies are taking advantage of their private spaces by, say, Alexa suggesting they might want a latte. While that kind of immersive advertising hasn’t happened yet, it’s certainly not a stretch to imagine that it might.
Ultimately, the consumer has to remain in control of the digital assistant and commerce relationship for them to feel comfortable. However, it’s safe to say that if this kind of ordering catches on as digital assistants spread, there’s little doubt that major chains will be lining up to integrate with the system, as it opens up a new channel for tech-enabled commerce.
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