It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, but sometime in the past decade “texting” became a verb. You didn’t “write and send a message” to someone you wanted to speak to, you simply “texted”. And while the majority of smartphone communication still happens by inputting text, we’re starting to see that slowly change, particularly in the habits of western technology users.
Up until this point, we’ve seen a lot of messaging apps that offer a voice function, including the most widely used app, WhatsApp, which offers audio notes as an alternative form of communication. But most of these apps are “voice also”, not “voice first”. That’s an important distinction when you think about user behaviour; they are still encouraging users by design to use the keyboard as the primary form of message entry, rather than voice.
However, recently we have been seeing a subtle but significant move towards voice entry methods of communication. This is being driven a lot by Asian-led companies such as Beijing-based Baidu, who are catering to a usership who find it more difficult to input complicated characters and increasingly prefer a voice-based method of entry.
One example is Baidu’s TalkType, which TechCrunch explains has put voice front and centre: “TalkType is different because it places a large microphone front-and-center in the application. That’s not to say it gives up the keyboard, by any means – naturally, there are still times when it makes more sense to type than talk, but the app’s user interface makes voice the starting point and first option.”
This slight tweak in design can potentially go a long way in encouraging users to favour their voice over their fingers. The Chinese app WeChat is another example of the preference for voice over text, with some researchers estimating that “90% of WeChat users were making use of voice messaging.”
Though the difficulty of typing in Asian characters is a likely driver of this shift, it’s not the only place we are seeing manifestations of this trend. Lots of search apps such as Google are starting to place the microphone more prominently, thereby encouraging users to utilise it more often as a method of entry. Doing so more often in a search engine may lend itself to the messaging space as well.
As with most things, mass adoption will come down to a question of user preference and perceived normalcy. If it becomes normal to hear people in public carrying out a smartphone search in voice instead of text, perhaps it will catch on further and become standard to overhear someone composing a text message over voice. As Bijit Halder, project leader in Baidu Research’s Silicon Valley AI Lab said at the product’s launch, “TalkType is the first full-function smartphone keyboard that is ‘voice first,’ not voice. Unlike conventional smartphone keyboard designs, where voice is targeted for occasional use and delegated to a small mic icon, TalkType is designed to make voice the primary mode.”
Another way that voice instead of text might catch on is if users realise the unique emotional utility it offers. As Quartz wrote, “Voice notes also offer an antidote to one of the primary anxieties of the digital era-the fear that emails, texts and instant messaging rob conversation of emotional nuance, leading to endless misunderstandings and social blunders.”
The more that people become frustrated with text-based methods of entry and delivery muddling the meaning of the message they want to send, the more likely it is that they will turn to voice messages to ensure their sentiment is being communicated correctly. For now, it’s clear that like many trends in communication and tech, Asia’s broad user base and different set of priorities to the west is a driver of this shift.