Voice-enabled hotel rooms are more than just an Echo away

George Proudfoot
By George Proudfoot under Insights 24 February 2017

There’s been plenty of buzz since the announcement from Wynn Hotels that they will be rolling out the Amazon Echo across almost 5000 hotel rooms this year.

The buzz isn’t surprising - the potential for voice UI in hospitality settings has been obvious to anyone who has used Amazon’s Alexa to switch on the lights in their own home. Once you’ve done it a few times, turning on your lights the old fashioned flick-of-a-switch way feels incredibly anachronistic.

Especially anachronistic when you compare it to that frustrating fumble for an unfamiliar light switch in a hotel room. Add to that the potential for voice to connect to temperature controls, entertainment systems, concierge services… the list of valuable opportunities seems endless.

So what should any hotel or hospitality mogul be thinking about before making their own hefty order for a few thousand Amazon Echoes?

Design for every guest, with your guests, in your hotel rooms: not just for tech enthusiasts

Alexa-enabled domesticity feels magic to early adopters, and the growth curve looks suspiciously like the early iPhone days. But it’s far from being everywhere yet, and most people won’t understand Alexa on the scale of pinch-to-zoom for some time yet.

More than that, for now, it’s designed for consumers to use in the familiar, repetitive context of their own home. That repetition means individuals can learn voice commands while the product itself can start to build up a better understanding of your accent and patterns of speech in the cloud. It also means you can take the time to register your Amazon account, streaming services and other related accounts. So when you ask for your ‘my jams’ playlist, you get your jams - not someone else’s.

In an unfamiliar hotel room, things get trickier. The lack of visual interface means discovering Skills or commands in a voice UI will be a challenge. This challenge is all the more significant for international hotel guests and their diverse languages, accents and experience of the new technology.

Working out how to introduce these new voice UI room commands to customers is going to be a critical piece of broader service design in hospitality. It’s worth remembering how Amazon teams behind Echo tested early versions of the device - using ‘Wizard of Oz’ methods which refers to a team sat in a room next door to test participants' living rooms and kitchens. Similar techniques, involving real guests in real rooms, will clearly be vital to creating services that match customer expectations set by attentive staff, as well as the leading digital services in their lives.

Build voice UI services in a platform-agnostic way: it is not just about Alexa, and the Amazon Echo

The untold amount of first generation iPod docks languishing in hotel rooms is testament to the fact that it might not be best to blow your capital investment on the most zeitgeisty piece of tech on the market without thinking things through.

For voice UI in particular, it’s not clear who the winners will be yet. Amazon’s platform sits among many others: ones we’ve heard of, and probably some we haven’t.

Fortunately, designing interactions for Google Assistant, Cortana, Siri et al, is unlikely to differ too much from platform to platform once they’ve fully opened-up. The key for those who want to make early investments today is to build the voice UI infrastructure behind the scenes in an extensible way that protects future flexibility if it’s Assistant Actions that win out, not Alexa Skills.

At TAB, our engineers and architects have already laid the groundwork for a general purpose voice UI architecture to do this. Similarly, we’ve experimented with connected speakers more generally that could be a conduit for Alexa today, as well as other assistants in the future should they come to prominence. While the Echo hardware might be the right choice, it’s worth considering alternative, custom installations that keep you flexible for the future.

Explore ways for services to work across interfaces: don’t force everything through voice

Voice is just one part of the continued unbundling of apps, both within devices and into new ones like the Amazon Echo. That means many more connected things around us, and many more ways to interact with software, beyond just loading up an icon on your homescreen.

While voice-control alone will take leaps and bounds forward in the coming months and years, the real winners in tomorrow’s world will be interface neutral services: those that span across the screens, speakers and other surfaces around us.

In hospitality, that could mean using voice to summon a room-service menu to your TV screen, or a selection of film titles to order. Voice commands could be a great way for guests to request directions to the nearest sights, restaurants, or bars near to a hotel to be pushed to a smartphone app. Or, voice could be the best way to let you hire a car but allow you choose the model, upload your documentation and find your vehicle later via your smartphone.

From the point of view of staff, a guest’s voice commands could be a way to replace cardboard ‘do not disturb’ signs with digital ones instead displayed in their enterprise apps, alongside requests for cleaning, towels and later check-out.

So it’s not just about ordering an Echo for every room. Plan and build for a future where your customers might want to control your hotel room lights with a phone, smart TV, voice UI, gestures... and yes, maybe even the good old light switch.

To learn more about the unbundling of apps and how voice can fit into your business strategy, get in touch here.