zero uiLast time, on The Big Question, we gave our readers an opportunity to discuss the biggest questions they were still asking about marketing and communications.

It was a great exercise (if we can say so ourselves).

Not only did we unearth a number of areas we can shed light on in future columns, it also confirmed that people—especially people practicing marketing and/or communications—need a resource they can turn to in order to pose questions about our ever-changing, constantly-evolving industry.

There were A LOT of responses. It seems there is no end to our community’s curiosity!

It also yielded this week’s big question. You ask. We answer, right?

Here’s the thing, what the last Big Question also showed us is that asking a question doesn’t always get you an answer.

Or at least the answer you’re looking for.

Out of all the questions people were (still) asking, we narrowed in on one from Aaron Norris.

Aaron was confounded by what people weren’t asking more about, rather than what they were:

My biggest concern is talking to PR peeps who don’t understand what’s happening in the tech space for voice search and zero interface.

As in, it’s not on their radar at all and they’re still doing lame stuff like counting impressions and excited their firm now has a mobile-friendly website. Yikes!

So, we decided to address Aaron’s consternation and asked the Spin Sucks Community just that:

Zero Interface: Why are you excited about Zero UI (or why aren’t you)?

Why is it important to the future of content and how we engage with it?

Labels are Important

One of the more interesting points (well, according to a focus group of “me”) that came out of this query was that “zero interface” is probably not what we should be calling it.

From Seán Stickle:

The term “zero UI” is uncharitable to those who design voice UIs. They are “zero graphical UI” maybe…

To which the inimitable Christopher Penn replied:

Screenless. Edison Research calls the category “Smart Speakers.”

Seán continued, clarifying what he finds interesting about zero graphical UI, or screenless technology:

I think the multiplication of brand personalities in voice UIs will be interesting.

Right now, we have three pretty dull voice personalities (four, if you count Bixby).

The emergence of smart speakers also opens up some interesting futures in how English (in particular, other living languages I don’t know enough about) will evolve.

Dialectical forms optimized for imperative mood specifically for machines…?

The next step, if not an actual answer?

Christopher Penn:

With Watson Assistant, you can provide your own voice. Hey, Mike Connell, you should make a Ginibot.

Be afraid, people. Be very afraid…

That suggestion unearthed a rabbit hole of interesting scope.

If you’re a part of the free Spin Sucks Community, you can check out just how far that conversation went. If you’re not, what are you waiting for?

Zero UI: The Anomaly

While zero UI, or screenless technology, is a hot topic, the truth is that the implications, according to Penn, are a bit of an oddity:

Screenless is kind of an anomaly, as evidenced by the fact that Amazon’s Echo Spot and Google’s upcoming display-interface Google Home devices are poised to be quite popular.

Fundamentally, humans are visual creatures.

Where this is going is ubiquitous presence.

We’re already there with the smartphone, generally, but the next step in ubiquitous presence is the device you don’t need to carry around—the in-home and in-car devices that seamlessly connect to your personal cloud.

The endgame is either a future that looks like Star Trek or Elyisum.

Zero UI: The Problem of Privacy

Out of the gate, Betsy Decillis wanted to make sure we were clear on something:

I love our robot overlords and will do whatever they tell me to do.

Once her loyalty had been established, Betsy went on to outline some of her concerns with the ubiquity Christopher Penn referred to:

I don’t like it. I’m old and like having a gate between me and the tech.

But then I’m watching the joy my dad is getting from yelling at Alexa right now and am realizing I’m in the minority.

Do you think there will be a major privacy problem that could make more people paranoid like me?

Christopher Penn:

Without a doubt.

You have a corporate-sponsored wiretap in your house and no control beyond the good word of the sponsoring company about the data it’s collecting and using.

And not to weave politics too much into this, but with the recent string of Supreme Court decisions related to corporations, we are heading rapidly to a Syndicate-style future in which megacorporations are the de facto enforcers of culture and law, because the governments abdicated their responsibilities.

I mean, a pizza company is paving potholes.

See what I mean? Rabbit, meet hole.

Zero UI, Privacy Protection, and Choice

Betsy Decillis continued:

I just don’t like where any of this is going for our privacy.

Despite everything I put on the internet, I have some expectation that I have a choice of what goes on and what doesn’t.

Christopher Penn:

You never did once social networks became prominent.

Even if you never posted once, think of everyone around you describes your activities.

Think of it like tracing around an unknown object.

My wife doesn’t use Facebook at all, but yet her dormant Facebook account with zero connections (including none to me) and zero descriptors (high school, etc.) eerily nails it when suggesting friends, including old high school and childhood friends.

I entered the fray at this point, noting that my son was playing a network-game-du-jour. I was (am) OK with that (up to a point) because I had gone in and locked down pretty-well-everything.

So I asked if the group thought this was the protocol now…

Making sure we’re closing all the loopholes and plugging up the cracks where our personal info can seep?

Christopher Penn, responded, noting that yes, you have to consider the API in question, but ultimately:

Consider that’s probably 10 percent of what companies actually have on you.

Close what you can, but accept that everything is tracked.

The Old Man by the Lake

Betsy Decillis has found our temporary solution:

I’m really sounding like an old man. But my ultimate goal is to live by the lake in a not-smart home with no social connections.

So I will be a hermit yelling get off my lawn. That’s my plan to deal with all of this

Zero UI and Voice: What Should the Question Be?

If we’re having a discussion about screenless interactions and voice-activated technology, what should we be focusing?

According to Christopher Penn:

Search. Can you be found using natural language?

Screenless search is the ultimate brand recall test.

Remember that search results on a screenless device are result 1 only. Position 2 or 3 in results = no love at all. Position 1 or nothing.

Which in turn means you MUST rank for natural language queries and fulfill the intent of the searcher in one shot.

Katie Robbert entered the conversation via our PR Dream Team at this point (because the Spin Sucks Community string was a little scary):

Consumers are a blend of convenience/speed versus experiential shopping.

Voice-activated speakers are great for people like Chris who don’t care about the experience, whereas I want the real-life experience of shopping, vacationing, etc.

So UI, even if it’s digital, matters to someone like me.

I like to compare things, pick things out, personalize.

Zero UI: Back to the Original Question

The conversation meandered somewhat, as good discussions often do.

We touched upon dead languages, cybernetic implants, machine etiquette, sentient machines (which I’ve dubbed #godbots), Black Mirror, and eventually circled back to the original question.

Greg Brooks provided a summary of his thoughts:

I’m not terribly worried from a professional-development perspective since my world is already full of targeting data that most practitioners, most of the time, are either too dumb or too unmotivated to use.

I *can* see aggregated/parsed/ubiquitous voice data as being useful in the future on two levels: Strategically, it’s another facet of social media’s algos, allowing you to determine less-discussed or private preferences (like politics) from data.

In a tactical sense? Damn right I want to serve ads and info to someone *right when they’re talking about it.*

Betsy Decillis: I’m with you—I like to maintain a gate. I disagree that a whole lot of this will end up in SCOTUS because it’s private companies you’re interacting with voluntarily.

Where it *should* end up is in Congress, but Congress seems to be less and less interested in lawmaking these days.

Christopher Penn: I agree that the game is ubiquity and that current efforts are just baby steps.

Pervasive or near-pervasive audio capture and processing would be wildly useful in any society that has a social-credit scoring system, like the one China is implementing.

In the U.S., that might take the form of a social-credit overlay, developed privately and sold in the way access to FICO scores are sold, to help businesses more accurately target customers and determine risk.

From Seán Stickle:

Back to the original question… it’s an open question to me whether AI-backed conversational interfaces and real-time translation support will

(1) fragment languages into ever-more local dialectal forms (i.e., a machine-compensated Tower of Babel) or

(2) converge languages even faster into a few common patois … or

(3) both.

Christopher Penn:

Given what Google did with deep learning and translate, I think #2 is a real possibility.

Zero UI: The Question Remains

One thing was abundantly clear during our zero UI discussion: Our Spin Sucks Community is scary smart, and the question of privacy, AI, and the associated technology and data is not going away anytime soon.

Jill Manty summarized it very well:

This whole discussion is simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

Part of me wants to go read everything that’s ever been written on the topic and part of me wants to move someplace without electricity.

Up Next: The Value of Unplugging

We had a… spirited, albeit inchoate discussion about so-called “time off” in one of our private Spin Sucks communities.

On the surface, we loosely discussed the merits of vacation and disconnecting from the ubiquity of technology (if not technology completely).

Digging down, it looked like there was a deeper discussion that needed to happen around an always-on mentality, the stress around vacation, stress around work itself, and loving it, but being okay with wanting to take a break.

Add to that the value of technology. How it improves our lives and processes, and how some don’t want to unplug or take a break from it.

What do they say? You can’t have too much of a good thing.

Others feel that no matter how much technology improves our lives, and no matter how much you love your job, if you pour everything into it, and never unplug, you could burn out and lose much of what makes you human.

So, the next Big Question is:

How important is the notion of unplugging, and is taking a break/vacation important if you love your job so much it pains you to be away from it?

Do you work to live, or live to work? Is there such a thing as too much technology, regardless of the inherent benefits? Is there a “correct/right” answer?

You can answer here, in our free Spin Sucks Community, or on the socials (use #SpinSucksQuestion so we can find you).

Mike Connell

Mike Connell is the director of client services at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. He is also a contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks, the leading source for modern PR training, trends, and insights. Find more of Mike's musings on his blog, Communative. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

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