Research: Smart speakers combat loneliness
December 13, 2022
By Colin Mann
Smart speakers are playing an important role in combatting loneliness for people who live on their own, according to new Ofcom research.
The regulator’s latest data show that smart speaker ownership nearly doubled during the pandemic, increasing from 22 per cent of households in 2020 to 39 per cent earlier in 2022. But why do people buy them, and why do others choose not to?
As Ofcom gears up to examine competition among digital personal assistants, it talked in depth to 100 smart speaker owners – and 15 non-owners who tested one – to find out how people use and feel about them.
Research participants mainly used their smart speakers to listen to music, radio, news and weather updates. Latest industry figures show that 13 per cent 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.
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.
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.
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.
Also, most became 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.
Ofcom’s latest data shows that 27 per cent of smart speaker owners get their news from their device.
Most 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.
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.