ConverCon 2018, Microsoft HQ, Dublin
September 10th

ConverCon 2018, Microsoft HQ, Dublin

It was a last minute decision to go to ConverCon now in its second year in Dublin. I left the family home for Leeds Bradford Airport at 4am to fly to the Emerald Isle. The one day event organised by Paul Sweeney of Webio focused on conversational interface design and featured many thought leaders from the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft.

WhatsApp now has 1 billion active users and people are more likely in this day and age to message a business than pick up the phone.  Approximately 8 out of 10 people sent a message in the last month.

The question is will websites disappear in favour of conversational interfaces?

Think about the billions of pounds spent on branding and packaging each year. If conversational commerce becomes big this will become less important. Brand marketers need to wake up to this fact. The way we interact with voice technology to search and do things means we are moving from brands to intents. Alexa Skills are becoming like verbs as you are always asking them to do stuff.

Who is going to dominate in the intents business?

Microsoft’s Alec Saunders Principle PM for Business AI talked of the future of conversational interfaces. Microsoft is eating its own dog food, building internally facing interfaces. For example, if you send an email to HR the artificial intelligence figures out where it should go and what should happen next. This can be done via email, a chat interface and other ways.

There are some obvious horizontal business processes which you can automate in this way instead of back office people doing this. The benefit is for the business outsourcing bill to be cut. For example, there is a virtual agent who can figure out which Microsoft license you should be on.

Microsoft are finding that chatbots are more popular that FAQs and it gets users to the answers much more quickly. If you add text and messaging instead of voice in the contact centre then efficiency goes up. Furthermore, job satisfaction goes up. There is a huge repetition in asking questions in a call centre or helpdesk. Virtual agents can handle the messy, common questions and humans get involved with more complex issues.

Chatbots are good at handling peaks with a minimum level of service, for example, the annual tax filing or university clearing when call centres’ lines traditionally get jammed. In a talk by Oracle a chatbot was used on the careers section of a website to guide a job seeker into the correct job based on a series of questions on skills and experience.

Intercom, a Russian company specialising in chatbots, is all about making the internet business personal. Websites with use of live chat have users which are 82% more likely to convert. Replying to people on chat is expensive so you need bots. Replying to someone in 5 minutes on live chats means you are a lot more likely to close a deal. Personable replies on chat are about context. Bots must take over the simple tasks and humans can get involved when the complexity is too much for the bot.

How do you handover from bot to human?

You should always be clear on live chat whether you are speaking to a bot or a human. Businesses top reasons for using chatbots are customer experience, cost effectiveness, scalability and compliance. The scope and order of how people talk are complex and random. The context of a conversation is important e.g. their previous experience e.g. their locations. In conversational design, you can give nudges and hints to people based on what they have done previously.

David Low Head of Alternative Channels at Skyscanner says the ultimate goal is for Skyscanner to book a flight before the person realises they need to book one. This can be done with people’s intents, conversational history and artificial intelligence. Seamus White, Founder of Granite Digital explains that once the consumer expectation is there to use live chat and voice commands then the floodgates will open on conversational computing. For example, when mobile apps first came out most people didn’t know what it was but when the consumer expectation became real mobile apps became commonplace.

Clodagh Brenna, Trend Analyst at Foresight Factory gave a talk on personalised conversations and the future of customer interactions. Clodagh stated that 80% of buying decisions are emotional. Empathy is a route to understanding consumers which then leads to greater trust and better experiences. People like sharing emotions and generate emoticons. When communicating with a consumer you need to speak to people’s aspirations as this resonates.

Mitch Lieberman, Analyst at Opus Research followed comparing the customer journey with business processes. The context of a conversation is important e.g. their locations or prior conversations. What questions can not be answered by Alexa is where the opportunity lies.

Your goal is to reach conversations which help reduce friction and the communications mismatch. The hard part is what conversation to have and then how to have that conversation. In conversational commerce, you need the conversation history and context. Keep asking clarifying questions until you get to the answer. How many turns until you get handed off to a human. A small number of intents gives you what most people want to do. You need journey analytics to recommend what conversations to have in the future.

For great conversational design, you need dialogue design. This is best done by using notes on a wall. You must find the voice of the user. You must also cater for the what if, what if, what if scenarios. Further thought needs to be given to if you are happy how would you say it and if you are angry how would you say it?

So will the website disappear? We could be moving to a world of multi skilled chatbots with bots calling bots! The rise of voice first technology and artificial intelligence is only going further towards this endeavour. With over 50 years of artificial intelligence computing, we are now reaching a period of time when science fiction is becoming science fact.

Voice Summit 18, Newark, New Jersey

Voice 18, Newark, New Jersey

Voice 18, Newark, New Jersey

Sean Gilligan, Founder & CEO, Webanywhere at Voice 18

Sean Gilligan, Founder & CEO, Webanywhere at Voice 18

The competition is fierce. Why are the biggest tech companies in the world so focussed on the voice space? What is the motivation of companies? What are the voice assets? A battle for adoption, attention, authority and agency is in play.

Smart speakers are moving faster than the fastest previous growth technology, the smart phone. We have just passed 50 million people using smart speakers in the USA. The number is up 20% from the start of 2018. This is not just a USA phenomena but it’s a worldwide pattern.

It’s going into everything. Microphones will soon be everywhere. The question is what is behind the mic. The big tech companies want to be the voice behind the mic. Two thirds of users use smart speakers daily. Smart speakers are the gateway drugs to voice. People who buy smart speakers do not want to go back to life before. Smart speakers are sticky and have staying power. Once people are using smart speakers in the home people start thinking about using voice commands on their mobile phone. When you use smart speakers in a room with other people, what happens is the technology laggers learn from the adopters.

The founder of Modev and organiser of Voice Summit 18, opened the three day event. The keynote for the summit in Newark New Jersey was Dave Isbitski, the Chief Evangelist of Amazon Alexa. Dave himself had actually studied at New Jersey Institute of Technology in his formative years, so it was nice for him to return and address the audience of two and a half thousand people. The new building that was hosting the main arena for Voice 2018 was the Health and Wellbeing Centre of NJIT, which opened six months prior.

Alexa Games Panel at Voice 18

Alexa Games Panel at Voice 18

With voice controlled IT, after all, there is less friction involved and we can talk three times faster than we can type. Dave highlighted the explosion of the Amazon Alexa marketplace for skills reaching 45,000 skills to date. Skills are for smart speakers as apps are for mobile phones. The most popular skill on the Amazon Marketplace is a skill which plays sounds for getting people to sleep. There is also a skill for farting, which is quite popular obviously for humorous reasons.

In another talk, Doug Robinson the CEO and Founder of Fresh Digital Group talked about the value of voice data for brands. Voice data is worth three to four times more than ordinary data because it has a person’s intent. Speed becomes a driving factor for consumers in the purchasing of products. Voice is an on demand channel through which users can instantly receive information and complete tasks. This expectation of immediacy surpasses e-commerce across all industry verticals.

There is therefore a race against brand extinction. Instead, customers will move from trusted brands to trusted AI assistants. Brands need to ensure that they can guarantee they are part of your consideration when making purchasing decisions. Businesses need to train users to request your brand by voice in this new VoiceFirst world. Brands also need to think about how their brand sound. Big brands already have sonic jingle and we are familiar with these for brands such as McDonalds but all brands now need to be thinking in this way.

We are on the start of the Voice First adoption curve. With over 100M Amazon smart speakers in US homes, connected cars with wifi and ability for drivers to control technology handsfree there are many compelling reasons to adopt voice. Smart speakers which are used in living rooms and kitchens are controlled by super users who then teach more novice family members how to properly utilise Alexa. People using Alexa in their kitchens with smart speakers then start to use voice on their mobile phones. All of this is helping to drive adoption and educate the consumer. Kids who can’t read are now asking Alexa the time and to play music or even set an alarm and Alexa has had to adapt to this by teaching children to be polite with magic words such as please and thank you.

In the next five years we will be less dependent on the mobile phones in our pockets as we talk to voice controlled devices. We will be less glued to our screens and this will give us more time for each other in our jam packed busy days. Thank you for reading and perhaps you will attend Voice 2019 next year!

PPS If you are interested in conversation as a platform and VoiceFirst please sign up for your free Sound Branch account at soundbranch.com

 

Number 68 in Top 100 E-Learning Movers and Shakers Worldwide 2018

Webanywhere Team Celebrated Pano's British Citizenship

Webanywhere Team Celebrated Pano’s British Citizenship

This week it was great to see we have moved from position 87 last year to number 68 in the e-learning movers and shakers list worldwide. All this shows the dedication and commitment of the Webanywhere team to stretch beyond. Our Brandon Hall Gold Award for Unique Learning Technology with JetBlue Scholars probably helped propel us up the list.

I want to thank all my staff for their dedication and support over the years to make this happen. Long may it continue and who knows next year we might reach the top 50 of perhaps the top 10!

Top 100 E-Learning Movers and Shakers Worldwide 2018

 

Tech Crunch Disrupt Berlin 2017

Sean and Marcin

Sean and Marcin Tech Crunch Disrupt Berlin

To round off the year I traveled to Berlin for my first Tech Crunch Disrupt. Whilst two of us in the Ventures Anywhere team flew from Manchester two other colleagues drove 6 hours North from Katowice to Berlin.

I’ve been an avid reader of Tech Crunch over the years so to go to my first Disrupt event and learn what the rest of the startup industry was up to was always going to be insightful. From panels in the main stage to off the record workshops ranging from Blockchain to Artificial Intelligence seminars – Venture Capitalists, journalists and entrepreneurs descended on Berlin.

It was my first visit to Berlin in 10 years and the Arena Berlin in the Eastern part of the city hosted the event. The venue a former industrial factory also proved to be an appropriate setting for the unveiling of brand new bus for social movement provided by MOIA VW’s self driving vehicle and car sharing arm.

Other UK startups attended Disrupt with TechNorth one of the lead sponsors. It was good to catch up with Kane Fulton a journalist working for TechNorth who’s fear of flying lead him to travel all the way to Berlin on the train. UK startups Big Change, Synap and Tutora showcased their offerings. Big Change is a remote workforce app, Synap a quiz engine for student revision and Tutora a marketplace for tutors.

Doug and Sean

Doug and Sean

As Ventures Anywhere we were showcasing a series of innovations including Sound Branch a voice messenger, Watch and Learn a video sharing platform and Mums Anywhere the world’s first audio forum for mums which has been rising in the social networking ranks on the Apple App Store.

Mums Anywhere has a number of endorsements from the likes of celebrities Ferne McCann who presents on This Morning, Amy Childs formally of The Only Way is Essex and Cara de la Hoyde of Love Island who has just given birth. Mums Anywhere has recently been in the National Press including The Daily Mail and The Yorkshire Post. It was my wife Claire’s idea. With our first baby Joseph Claire suffered from gestational diabetes and would often worry about our baby endlessly searching forums and conducting Google searches. The problem was there were no emotional platforms for this very emotional issue.

Panel on Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence Panel

Mums Anywhere combines the empathy of the human voice with the wisdom of the crowd to give mums piece of mind. This can help reassure mothers and mothers to be with the comfort of advice from more experienced mums and other mums in a similar situation. When a mum is up in the middle of the night and there is no one to talk to listening to other mums and their pearls of wisdom can be very reassuring.

There are 2 billion mums in the world and we think Mums Anywhere can reach 200M users in the next few years. We will have to wait and see what happens, voice notes are on trend and mums have been joining from the UK, the Americas, Spain, Germany, Turkey and as far a field as Australia and Malaysia.

Kordian and Doug

Kordian and Doug

Josh Constine Editor-At-Large hosted an off the record panel on Artificial Intelligence. Guests on the panel included Suranga Chandratillake of Balderton Capital, William Tunstall-Pedoe of Creative Destruction Lab, Marie Outtier of Auden.ai and Darja Gutnick of Bunch.ai. Josh started by posing questions around the ethics of AI and bias created by computer programmers. For example what if an AI application for hiring through biased just hired white males? This clearly would not be acceptable in terms of employment diversity. The ethics moved on to a conversation around universal credit and AI’s impact on jobs. Suranga suggested that humans would have more free time and there would be more people playing games together. William mentioned the fact that AI can enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of jobs for example radiographer in hospitals and surgeons would people able to spot problems faster. I’ve got to admit having just been through passport control in Manchester digital scanning was much quicker than the traditional approach deployed in Berlin which resulted in massive queues. Being a passport control officer whilst being a very important task must be mind numbing. This is certainly one instance where AI wins. I am however worried about the net effect on jobs. What will happen to all the taxi drivers who loose their jobs to self driving cars and to the para legal profession which will be made redundant due to machine learning?

Suranga Chandratillake who advises the UK Prime Minister on technology matters explained what Venture Captitalists should look for when investing in AI firms. Suranga said “Not only does the computer scientist need to have a good understanding of artificial intelligence but they need specialist knowledge of the problem area they are tackling.” He went on to explain the VCs need to believe that the team they invest in can solve the problem.

Lia win Tech Crunch Disrupt Battlefield

Lia win Tech Crunch Disrupt Battlefield

In the Startup Battlefield competition the winner Lia launches degradable pregnancy test made out of paper not plastic and so being much more friendly to the environment. The runners up were Blik claimed they could reduce the need for barcodes in warehouses worldwide by up to 30%. Both ideas provided innovative ways of solving massive problems.

Bringing matters to a close the founder Robert Vis of MessageBird was interviewed by Editor-in-Chief Mike Butcher. Robert bootstrapped his business for 6 years before taking a series A round of invest of $60M this year. This $60M was the highest series A on record in Europe. MessageBird provide the SMS and virtual numbers for companies such as Uber and manage the infrastructure layer for mission critical messaging be it SMS, voice or text.

Mike Butcher interviews Robert Vis of MessageBird

Mike Butcher interviews Robert Vis of MessageBird

One of the questions Mike Butcher asked Robert Vis was “How come this is your first Tech Crunch Disrupt?” to which Robert Vis replied “I’ve been too busy building my companies.” In fact Robert had just taken a 3 week break in Thailand to learn kickboxing and only took a primitive phone to avoid disturbances for his first holiday in 6 years. A much deserved break I’d say!

I guess that statement shares resonance with me as I too have been too busy building Webanywhere over 14 years to make it to Tech Crunch Disrupt and have instead relied on watching YouTube videos of Disrupt. Having started my Ventures arm Ventures Anywhere Tech Crunch and such conferences are making their way into my diary. Perhaps San Francisco will be next?

A link to Mums Anywhere can be found below:

https://mumsanywhere.com

DevLearn 2017, Las Vegas

Webanywhere USA Team at DevLearn 2017, Las Vegas

Webanywhere USA Team at DevLearn 2017, Las Vegas

This week I attended DevLearn 2017 in Las Vegas. The last time I had visited DevLearn was 10 years ago so it was good to meet up with our USA team and see how the conference had evolved. The theme for the week was “The Future of Learning”.

Two speakers at the conference caught my eye. Julian Stodd of Sea Salt Learning and Jane McGonigal a Futurist from with a PHD from UC Berkley. Julian gave a talk on ‘Social Learning’ whilst Jane would give a speech on ‘How to Think Like a Futurist‘.

Julian who is from the UK was easily identifiable with his long beard and long hair. He talked about how he’d taken Nokia executives over a 14 week social learning journey.
One of the key points that Julian made is that you have to earn the right for peoples engagement in your social learning platforms. If you don’t and the right people take their engagement elsewhere because there are other things for them to be doing.
Below is an image describing 10 aspects of social learning.
10 aspects of Social Learning

10 aspects of Social Learning

The final keynote Speech in the main hall was by Jane McGonigal a futurist, game designer and best selling author.

Jane talked about how to imagine yourself in 10 years time. There are two ways of doing this.

Firstly having a fact-based approach to the future in 10 years time and secondly considering 10 years time in the first person.

Apparently it is much more affective to view your future in the first person.

Furthermore the more details you can put down on paper about 10 years into the future more creative you are.

Jane continued her tour by describing the possibility that companies might not have employees in the future but instead learners.

DevLearn 2017, Las Vegas

DevLearn 2017, Las Vegas

These learners would have learning credits and degrees with no longer exists. Instead there would be a constant trade between companies and individuals on learning credits and people would be hired on their learning credentials not their CVs.

Jane stated that the more absurd an idea is the more likely it might become a reality in the future.

One thing is for certain whether it is today or tomorrow the more we learn and educate ourselves the greater our competitive advantage will be in a new learning era.

Stretching beyond international borders

Our brand mantra is to ‘Stretch Beyond’ it seems fitting that our recent management strategic away day was held in the Polish and Czech Republic mountains.

Getting away from the office and into tranquillity to look back on where the business is now and on where we will be in the future was a great idea from our COO Michal who has a house set in the mountains.

One bit of advice for business success is to change your environment regularly. Travelling up ski cable cars to some of Southern Poland’s highest peaks certainly gave us all a different perspective on the business.

Clearly the weather was too hot for the snow that would form on the mountains during ski season but nevertheless it made for good walking and we made it to the Polish Czech Republic border at the summit.

Climbing a metal tower and looking towards Poland, the Czech Republic and into Slovakia on a wonderfully clear day got me thinking about stretching beyond.

From our Leeds headquarters office it is approximately 900 miles to Katowice as the crow flies. Our Chicago office is 3000 miles away from basecamp!

The Internet and mobile phone changes the game on where and how you can work. With all the big mobile operators now charging the same as they do back home in the UK the cost of doing business abroad has fallen yet again.

Although it’s not great being away from a young family FaceTime, Skype and Google hangouts give you a level of comfort that you’re only really a stones throw away from loved ones.

To round off what was a perfect number of days of strategic planning our flight in Katowice got cancelled. Thankfully we were re-rooted via Kraków to Leeds Bradford airport and arrived only half a day late back in the UK.

All in all it was great to meet is the senior leadership team in the mountains as we prepare to climb our next mountain!