WTF is zero UI?

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

According to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the future of devices could be, well, the end of devices. “We will move from mobile first to an AI first world,” he wrote in a letter to shareholders of parent Alphabet Inc. last April.

But what do you call an experience you can’t click or tap? Zero user interface, or zero UI, is an increasingly popular phrase first coined by designer Andy Goodman, formerly at Accenture Interactive’s agency, Fjord.

It is essentially a catchall term for screen-less experiences, and covers voice (tech like Amazon Alexa) and movement (tech like Magic Leap). They share the goal of getting computers to respond to body language and human speech rather than humans needing to learn theirs. But they don’t have an interface in the traditional sense.

A brief explainer, for marketers:

Wait, why marketers? What’s all that got to do with marketing?
This year, marketers are going to hear a lot more about screen-less experiences. By 2020, Gartner predicts 30 percent of Web browsing will be done without one.

And while voice- and movement-recognition software isn’t new, these devices are now opening up to third-party integration. Siri opened up to select third-party developers last June, while Cortana followed in December with launch partners including CapitalOne and Expedia.

So, now brands can insert themselves into a new place that’s proving increasingly popular with consumers. This Christmas, Amazon said it sold nine times the amount of Echo products it sold in 2015. While the company doesn’t disclose sales figures, it claims they are in the “millions.”

Do we really have to start saying “zero UI,” though?
The term is out there, but not everyone likes it. Some think it is a good placeholder while the industry gets more familiar with the concept and thinks up something less jargony. According to Tom Ollerton, We Are Social’s innovation director, it is “total agency bullshit.” For him, it’s too broad and difficult to understand. “It might actually slow things down,” he added.

Others, like Rob Bennett, managing director at agency +rehabstudio, describe it as a “provocative” phrase that urges the industry to address consumer behaviors marketers aren’t taking seriously enough.

Still, “zero UI” lumps in much more than voice and movement. The term is often extended to messenger bots and broader mind-reading projects too. It can miss the nuances of each of those different technologies by rolling them into one.

Whatever we call it, it’s a thing, though?
These screen-less platforms are going to demand resources from a lot of brands. Campbell’s, Domino’s and Patrón are all actively experimenting with voice-activated platforms like Amazon Alexa, Siri and Google Home already.

With increased attention from brands, there’s now a premium on creating “skills” (voice apps) at agencies.

“It’s now about moving from messaging to behavior,” said Cameron Worth, founding partner of IoT agency Sharp End. “We’re moving into a world where brands deliver service-based equity. It’s no longer about putting your logo in an app.”

Who should be getting in on this?
Brands that can actually be useful on the platforms.

“The tech is never going to be the story, so be emphatic about the user goal not possessive around the interface,” said Ollerton. Still, not all brands will be able to insert themselves into this brave new world as seamlessly as someone like Uber, whose users can find, request and track a taxi on Alexa and Home … and right from within a Facebook Messenger conversation.

But there’s no scale yet, right?
These technologies — and their brand integrations — are still in their infancy, so not quite. Plus, being inside someone’s home requires a greater level of trust, so there’s a balance for brands to strike between insights and overstepping the mark.

“If it’s coming through voice that can be intruding on the fundamental thing people are using that for,” said Matt King, who heads up tech and media research at Mintel. “It’s about finding a way of using it without blocking the channel of communication.”

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