Who doesn’t shudder at the thought of having to make that dreaded call to the bank—the one where you struggle to understand a long list of options, have to choose whether to click the five or the two, try to get through to a human agent, and then wait on hold for hours only to be hung up on?
Most people find such call systems unhelpful because humans generally don’t communicate like algorithms and decision tree branches. We have expectations of how conversations ought to flow and grow increasingly frustrated when we can’t express our wants and needs.
For some users, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems—and menu-driven voice experiences—aren’t that intuitive, partially because of the algorithmic approach to their design. The key to creating a successful one, then, is to test it with actual consumers. That’s what Pulse Labs, a Seattle-based startup funded by the Alexa Fund, seeks to help with: They support companies with consumer research, data, and analytics to empower their voice offerings.
According to the founders, the startup has helped launch voice experiences on Alexa and other voice services for over 150 brands. Its approach combines real-time user testing with data analysis to aid developers and designers. It starts by finding the right users to test, taking into consideration target demographics, languages, and interests. Then, data analysis provides developers with insights into those consumer interactions revealing patterns across testing feedback.
Rewind to 2016, when the Alexa Skills Kit was just a year old and the first Amazon Echo Dot devices were released. Back then, Abhishek Suthan was a vice president at Goldman Sachs in New York City, and Dylan Zwick was the director of data science at Overstock in Salt Lake City.
Feeling compelled to join the voice revolution, the two teamed up. “I feel we’re experiencing a tectonic shift in human-computer interaction—all of us are actually very fortunate just to be alive at this time,” Suthan said. “There was the industrial revolution. There was the internet revolution. Now, it’s voice. What really got me interested is the ability to not just see it happening, but to be able to actively participate in making it happen.”
Suthan and Zwick took their germ of an idea—to offer voice experience testing to businesses—and devoted six months to market research, meeting with prospective customers interested in exploring the potential for voice. The two co-founders heard from product developers and designers about their approaches to voice design and their struggles with the lack of real user feedback.
Meanwhile, the voice revolution was picking up steam. By 2017, over 20,000 Alexa skills were available in the U.S., and the Echo Dot was the top selling item on Amazon with several millions of Echo units sold.
With a proof of concept in hand, the two entrepreneurs pitched the project, then called MSZ, to the Alexa Fund, and were accepted into the inaugural Alexa Accelerator, powered by Techstars. Suthan and Zwick decided to quit their comfortable jobs to jump headfirst into the startup world.
Suthan and Zwick’s project was one of nine early-stage startups that were brought together from around the world for the 2017 Amazon Alexa Accelerator in Seattle.
During the first month of the three-month program, the co-founders got to meet with technical experts, potential customers, and investors from the Techstars’ network, while receiving mentorship from Amazon teams.
“The best part of it is, you get so many different perspectives,” Suthan said. “You get access to technical and product teams that help you really think through your product. On the sales and business development side, [the Accelerator organizers] try to connect you with teams that can become potential customers.”
One of those introductions was to Madrona Venture Group, and a few months later, in 2018, the venture firm joined the Alexa Fund, Bezos Expeditions, Google Assistant Investments, and Techstars Ventures in the $2.5 million seed round for Pulse Labs.
During the second month of the Alexa Accelerator, Pulse Labs went from a simple proof of concept to a product in use by actual customers.
“That really short loop, between the team that’s building the product and the customer that’s using the product, helped to accelerate the pace of development,” Suthan said. “The company is using our product because they want you to build an informed product that creates high value for customers. That’s tremendous, it’s more than validation.”
The third month of the accelerator was focused on funding. Pulse Labs founders got help developing their vision, honing their sales and marketing strategy and refining their pitch.
The accelerator concluded with a demo day, when all nine participants got to showcase their work to roughly 200 potential investors. “That created a sense of urgency for the investors to move fast and pick their winners, because if you don't move fast, somebody else will,” Suthan said. “The ability to pitch in such a competitive, almost bidding, environment is nice for an early-stage startup.”
Now, three years later, there are over 100,000 Alexa skills. According to Pulse Labs, Suthan (CEO) and Zwick (CPO) have assembled hundreds of voice app testing panels and provided UX feedback to over 150 brands developing voice applications.
Pulse Labs connects developers and designers to their potential users by assembling consumer panels. The startup lets testers interact with a device or a voice experience as if they were using it in a real-world situation. Then, Pulse Labs captures the interaction data, analyzes it, and provides feedback (such as sentiment and longitudinal analysis, engagement, and usability) to the design and development teams.
The challenge for Pulse Labs, according to Suthan, is to try to make sense of that user feedback without any established benchmarks. “We're probably the front runners in essentially creating those benchmarks,” Suthan said. “So we work very closely with some of the key teams in voice to try to come up with benchmarks for what makes for a good voice experience.”
But the biggest challenge that Suthan and his team face is continuing to innovate and support trailblazing technologies. A well-designed conversational AI, for instance, should be able to continue to adapt overtime to the behavior of a specific user. “In a way, the holy grail for me is to have the ability to personalize the experience to every individual user,” Suthan said.
Individual users — consumers — have already embraced voice. For instance, according to the Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, one in four U.S. adults owns a smart speaker now, and, according to a different study by Statista, 4.2 billion digital voice assistants are being used in devices around the world.
Pulse Labs has been working with customer-centric companies to test and implement Alexa skills and other voice experiences. In the automotive industry, the team tested the design of infotainment systems and voice-assisted subscription models for enhanced user experience.
In the entertainment industry, Pulse Labs tested recommendation and interactive skills for publishing companies, games, children’s apps, and video streaming services, which have all been embracing Alexa skills to build authentic connections with their audiences and create additional content.
While consumers’ behavior and expectations for voice UX have been drastically changing, enterprise adoption has been lagging in comparison, according to Suthan and Zwick. Still, Pulse Labs has seen several industries expressing interest in the added value of voice. After all, voice technology promises to cut costs, increase productivity and safety, create a better customer experience, and improve consumer engagement.
Pulse Labs has seen a lot of innovation in healthcare, especially with the addition of Alexa HIPAA-eligible skills. The company has worked with several healthcare providers, and Suthan believes that there’s a great potential for voice technology in several use cases. For example, voice could free technicians’ hands to concentrate on lab work instead of looking up information; pharmacists could use voice assistants to automate pill management; physicians and nurses could concentrate on providing better care and improving patient outcomes instead of writing notes.
The oil and gas industry is also looking into voice assistants. Suthan explained that oil rig workers, who work around heavy equipment in dangerous conditions, would benefit from hearing instructions and looking up information by voice, which would free their hands and make them safer.
Pulse Labs, with support from the Alexa Fund, is eager to help all the industries joining the voice revolution become future Alexa skills builders. And since voice is becoming the new paradigm for human-computer interaction, there’s a growing need for consumer insights not only on the software side but also on the device side.
Suthan said that Pulse Labs’ ultimate goal is to “become the Nielsen for the connected world,” in a reference to the 100-year-old global measurement and data analytics company that provides consumer and markets analysis. Just as Nielsen does for traditional businesses, Pulse Labs’ panels give critical insights into user behavior and preferences, which helps developers build and launch successful voice experiences. Pulse Labs recognizes that the voice revolution won’t replace other technologies — instead, voice will augment visual and touch innovations. That’s why the company’s next frontier is to begin providing testing, measurement, and analytics for today’s businesses that are hoping to become the multimodal services of the future.