AI   Communication and Technology  

Smart Speakers Require Smart Management

The use of smart speakers, such Alexa and Google Assistant, has become ubiquitous in American society. As of 2020, one in three people in the United States used smart speakers for a variety of daily tasks, such as online shopping, e-mail, language translation, and searching for information, as well as simply resting and relaxing.

As use of smart speakers has grown, so has the tension between the devices and their users. Individuals welcome the convenience that smart speakers bring to their lives, but question the security of their data while using the devices. According to one previous study, about half of the individuals who had access to smart speakers in their households in 2020 did not know that their conversations were being permanently recorded by the devices.

Safeguarding one’s privacy from the ever-recording devices is not as easy as simply adjusting privacy settings. At its simplest, options to adjust the settings can be located in hard-to-find places within an app. Somewhat more complex is the fact that smart speakers have also been designed to be anthropomorphic, coming across as lifelike and even human. This increases the likelihood of users perceiving the smart speaker’s voice as a human actor of sorts, and consequently trusting the smart speaker to protect their privacy for them.

University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications researchers conducted a study about smart speaker use to understand the different ways people use the devices, as well as identify the main strategies they use to protect their privacy during that use. Results showed that music and information seeking are the top two uses for smart speakers, with finding music and hands-free control (such as looking up ingredients for a recipe) the top functions. Multitasking, enjoyment, relaxation, personal utility, and status are also key uses of smart speakers.

The study confirmed the tension between users’ functional use of the smart speakers and their privacy concerns. People would use the smart speakers to complete tasks such as online shopping and checking financial information, which then required the machines’ access to the users’ sensitive information. This, in turn, creates a perceived privacy threat.

Alternatively, when using their smart speakers for relaxation or enjoyment, users may feel as if they are interacting with a social entity instead of a machine. This reinforces the understanding that users do get attached to their devices. This can lead to users’ lack of seeking ways to mitigate privacy as that may limit user interaction.

This study expands existing research to include information about users’ interactions with smart devices by highlighting that when users perceive smart devices as more humanlike, they will revisit and adjust their privacy boundaries the same way they do with face-to-face conversations.

As smart speaker use continues to grow, the findings of this study provide some practical guidelines that may prove useful to device designers. For example, findings suggest that designers should make the privacy setting interface more akin to interpersonal communication so as to appeal to more users. Another recommendation to designers is to create more perceptible and obvious privacy setting controls for users.

Overall, this study acknowledges the tension between users who choose to use smart speakers for a wide variety of uses with their interest in personal privacy. By examining the core needs of end users, smart speaker design could advance to become even better for home-based smart media.

The original research paper, Smart Speakers Require Smart Management: Two Routes From User Gratifications to Privacy Settings,” appeared in International Journal of Communication, pages 192-214, Volume 16, 2022.

 Authors: Kun Xu, assistant professor in Emerging Media, Sylvia Chan-Olmsted, professor and director of Media Consumer Research, and doctoral student Fanjue Liu.

This summary was written by Marie Morganelli, Ph.D.

Posted: January 13, 2022
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