Exploring the role of AI in retail healthcare

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in market research; is it a new trend, overrated or a game changer? In recent years, every conference paper, every industry magazine and every business podcast has communicated the same message: AI is the next big thing! But is this the case for the market research industry, or is this a hype?

Let’s start with the basics. A ‘hype’ is the extravagant promotion of something or someone, often involving exaggeration. One characteristic of hype is that everybody uses different words to say the same thing, which is certainly the case for AI. We’ve heard all the buzzwords: big data, pattern recognition, predictive analytics, machine learning, deep learning, etc., but we are all saying the same thing. According to Bernard Marr, a leading data expert, AI is an umbrella term for “a broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we could consider smart”.

A second characteristic of hype is that whilst everyone is talking about ‘it’, very few people are walking the talk. This is also the case for AI! In the latest GRIT report, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) was the second most frequently mentioned buzz topic by industry professionals, but despite this, many felt that “AI and ML don’t yet have enough substance and proven techniques or results to consider them core to our toolkit”.

Admittedly, AI is still in the hype phase for the majority of the market research industry today. Maybe it’s time to go from hype to reality?

The reality of voice assistants today

When it comes to Voice/ Virtual Assistants, it’s well documented in the media that many of us are relatively comfortable with asking them to play our favorite song or check the weather. Thanks to the likes of Siri, Alexa, Google, Bixby and Cortana, it’s maybe not a question of ‘will people engage with the technology’ but ‘how will they learn, utilize and start to realize its full potential’?

Yet this isn’t just about education, as the technology just isn’t quite there yet. Voice assistants are still prone to error, inadvertently ordering unwanted items, completely misunderstanding our questions, and creating embarrassing and potentially childhood-scarring situations; which we have encountered first-hand in the Haselum household – switch on safe search mode, please.

These scenarios only add to the average person’s growing concerns about the handling of their personal information (already a challenge for the research sector), a fear of what is being secretly listened to and the constant creepy interruptions when talking to other people in its vicinity, forcing us to shout in unison, ‘Alexa stop…ALEXA **** STOP!

Early flaws and fearmongering aside, the reality is these assistants have opened a door of curiosity and offer the promise of making people’s lives easier.

This is why simple voice tasks/skills work because they are easy to enact, are relatively low risk, are quicker than typing into Google and mean we do not have to reveal too much about ourselves beyond a secret love of country pop music (guilty as charged) and the need to add toilet paper to the weekly shopping list (very relevant in today’s brave new world). It’s also fun when you start to realize that Alexa has a (sort of) sense of humor which is essential to making it a more natural interaction – ask her to beat-box and you’ll get the idea – just don’t tell the kids for your own sanity!

But for many, based on these experiences, these assistants are not trusted to deal with more complex high-risk requests such as banking, paying bills or anything that requires us to reveal too much of ourselves. Sure, shoppers are open to ordering products if this is something they buy regularly and is relatively low stakes/ low risk, but this still isn’t an easy proposition to set up, administer and check.

There is also an innate self-consciousness about speaking to a faceless voice, in front of others or in a public context, for fear of what it may reveal about us – this is surely the reason that voice assistants are being taught to respond in kind to your whispers, or react to the emotion in your voice – yes really!

The truth of the matter is that the promise of how these devices could change our lives is hard to resist: true ambient living through a connected digital ecosystem in our homes and workplaces, and an ‘assistant’ to decide what we want before we know it ourselves (I wonder what Daniel Kahneman would think about that).

From hype to reality

Against a backdrop of rising healthcare costs, easier self-(mis)diagnosis through the internet, an increasing variety/ range of products in-store which is leading to a choice paralysis, and a lack of availability of real staff that can help with all manner of random healthcare queries, it seems there is a need for something new.

However, the real question remains, is there room for an assistant that can not only deal with more complex issues but add a layer of humanity and personalization that will help overcome our fears: allow shoppers to feel more comfortable in sharing information and by proxy receive better healthcare help and advice?

In 2019, our client GSK started to explore the role of an AI Self-Care Coach that you can interact with in a retail healthcare environment. An initiative ahead of its time, and the foundation for a new digital and in-store strategic direction that is more important than ever before in our increasingly contactless world.

What followed was a journey of experimentation, where we played with different research techniques to get beyond the obvious stated Purchase Intent or Engagement, and into the potential of technology in the store of the future… which is today!

Check out the full case study on how we explored the potential of an AI self-care coach for GSK! Or get your free download of our bookzine From Hype to Reality for more on AI in market research.

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