Research: Smart speakers fight loneliness

Research: Smart speakers fight loneliness

Smart speakers play an important role in combating loneliness for people who live on their own, according to new Ofcom research.

The regulator’s latest data shows that ownership of smart speakers almost doubled during the pandemic, rising from 22 percent of households in 2020 to 39 percent earlier in 2022. But why are people buying them, and why are others choosing not to?

As Ofcom prepares to investigate the competition among digital personal assistants, it spoke 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. The latest industry figures show that 13 per cent of all radio listening hours now take place via smart speakers. People generally felt that they were listening to the radio more than they had before and said that their smart speaker allowed them to listen to a wider range of stations than before.

Some described their speaker as a companion, especially if they lived alone. They felt it was good for fighting loneliness and liked the fact that they could talk to their speakers.

Some disabled people said a smart speaker had made 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.

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The feeling of being listened to was further enhanced for some by the speaker sometimes speaking even when the “watch word” had not been used. Some people expressed concern about the potential for criminals to use smart speakers to steal data and hack into 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.

Most people, however, used the speakers with little concern and did not think about the risks in everyday life.

A large proportion of participants anthropomorphize their smart speakers, referring to them as “he” or “she”. Some people also ask questions in a conversational way, say “please” and “thank you”, and even read “purpose” or “personality” into answers and mistakes.

However, not everyone felt devoted to their smart speaker, seeing it more as a servant than a helpful friend.

Also, most people got frustrated because their speaker didn’t always respond correctly to commands, either ignored them or made “mistakes”. This was especially felt for 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 a supplement—rather than an alternative—to more in-depth news coverage, using it for immediate headlines but returning to TV, paper or online news for more detail if needed.

There was a mix of views on the extent to which people liked the speakers to adapt or tailor their content. Some appreciated the improved user experience they felt this gave them, while others found it unsettling and resented giving up too much control.

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In a recent study of choice in news, Ofcom identified concerns about the impact of “gatekeepers” on online news – particularly social media, such as Facebook, but also search engines and news apps such as Apple News and Google News.

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