You might not think of it that way, but Apple Watch, judging from the specs unveiled back in September, is probably the ultimate communication device. And as such, it should be on any customer care technologist’s radar. Let me explain by starting with a brief history of human language.
The study of language
Social communication is everything. It’s the essence of mankind. No other “man-made” system is more complex than that of the human language. If you deal with language as a system, you will soon realize the intricacies that lie in our combination of sounds, gestures, mimics that all make up this system. The sound structure alone is more than just ABC, the magic lies in what linguists call the suprasegmentals, such as melody, intonation, tone, stress, pitch, even volume.
When we added to spoken communication a system of written language some hundreds of years BC, we did just enough to carry the most basic suprasegmental traits over with punctuation and diacritics. Since written language was not primarily meant to represent everyday dialog but rather thoughts, facts and argumentation, the set of expressions of suprasegmentals available was just enough to avoid too many misunderstandings that a richer system of cues would help avoid almost completely.
The advent of the Internet soon allowed quicker forms of communication than the basic postal letter, such as email, and we started realizing the need for written representation of nuances such as a wink or sadness that could easily convey the same tone or color of sound in spoken communication. We invented the smileys, emoticons. They let us represent irony or other basic sentiment, which we could only do before through more words, or “meta” statements.
Soon after, communication got even faster with the introduction of instant messaging. Suddenly, we found ourselves representing gestures or facial expressions with acronyms such as LOL, or quite recently, SMH (“shaking my head”). We also went from using two asterisks surrounding a gestural expression (*sigh*) to the infamous “hashtag” – thanks to a few folks who came up with the idea of a “micro blog” in 2006 (technically speaking it wasn’t the founders of Twitter who came up with the hashtag, but the users). I am tempted to #SMH at that, but as a linguist by education I am just seeing (written) language evolve again, which is something that it has always done. There is also no need to despair over alleged degradation of our intricate system of language – if anything, the system is only growing in complexity, never shrinking.
Very recently, a new form of communication was again “invented” with the creation of the “Yo” app. Or was it? The app can do one thing, and one thing only: send someone a “yo.” It attracted venture capital of $1.5m. Now you might be throwing another #SMH at that at first sight, but think about it. When is the last time you sent a simple nod of your head someone’s way? Probably today. Since context is key in understanding human language, i.e. knowing what a conversation is about and knowing what has already been said (linguists call the study of context pragmatics), a nod can be all that’s needed in a certain context that both communicating parties share. Yo has seen over a million downloads after only a few days. People love these simple forms of communication! Sometimes it can’t be simple enough.
In parts of India, Africa, and other areas of the so-called third world, people have agreed on ringing patterns to communicate, the so-called “flashing” or “beeping.” Rather than calling a phone with the intention to talk, they let the other party’s phone ring, having agreed on patterns beforehand. Ringing once might mean yes, twice might mean no, thrice “I’m downstairs, come out,” etc. (I think I’ve used the latter meaning myself in the past…) As long as the context is known, that might be all you need to convey sometimes. And guess what, it’s free! Ringing does not incur a charge. Something the carriers in those markets do not love at all.
Apple’s Digital Touch
With the recent introduction of the Watch, Apple presented a number of new ways to communicate, which they call Digital Touch. Here is a list of what comprises this new communication vehicle:
Since the Watch can measure your heartbeat thanks to its built-in sensors, you can literally send your current heartbeat onto somebody else’s wrist. The Watch cannot only vibrate one way, it has an elaborate vibration system that can generate tangible sensations of different durations, at different areas, of different intensities. What on Earth would I use that for I hear you ask. Maybe to share my heartbeat with my girlfriend. Maybe to share it with a friend after a run (“hey, here’s my pulse, not bad after 5 miles right?”), or while watching a horror movie (“oh man this flick is intense, check out my heartbeat”) or riding a roller-coaster. Or to communicate boredom to a presenter, or relaxedness to my mom before an exam. Or… you’re next with ideas.
The Watch lets me draw on screen and then re-draws that pattern following my exact movements on the recipient’s screen. An effect that made the game Blek successful and addictive a while ago. What I draw gets re-drawn and then disappears – something that made Snapchat famous and worth $10 billion. Yes, billion. I can draw a quick check mark to send a “yes” or a “got it” to a friend. Or a house to tell dad I’m home. Or a question mark to tell my colleague I have no idea what our boss just meant with that remark on the phone call we’re both on. Or a heart to tell my girlfriend that I’m thinking of her…
I can touch the screen at different places. The touches will be shown as “drops” appearing and vanishing on the recipient’s wrist at the same rhythm that I generated them. I can imagine teenagers coming up with an elaborate “language” of touch patterns that only they can decipher. We will witness the birth of micro-languages that small groups agree on and use for communication. Something that I loved doing with friends when I was a kid. This is just a modern day version of the same.
We all loved doing this as kids, and guess what: the walkie-talkie is seeing a renaissance with apps such as Whatsapp that have been offering it for a while. You tap to record a snippet of voice or your surroundings, then let go to send. As simple as that. Apple added this feature rather late in their recent iOS 8 release, but well, they added it. And it completes the Digital Touch framework.
New ways of instant customer care communication
Customers love convenience and simplicity. They also love speed and ease of use. The Apple Watch combines all that. The growth of new customer care channels such as Twitter also point to the need (or acceptance) of to-the-point and concise or brief communication methods. While I gave you a number of examples of what people might use Digital Touch for in personal communication, you might already have started to think about applications for customer care.
Rather than sending me an email saying that my package has arrived, wouldn’t a simple sketch of a package dropped at my doorstep do the same without cluttering my inbox?
How about drawing a dollar note on my wrist if my salary got transferred to my bank account, which I might be checking today by constantly calling into the IVR on pay day?
If I get a heartbeat delivered to my wrist with my clinic as the sender, shouldn’t that be enough information to inform me that my test results are there?
Given that Apple will offer an API to Digital Touch, which will be the prerequisite to all of this, who knows: Maybe businesses will soon let me configure which “Tap” patterns to use for which predefined standard announcements so I don’t have to read lengthy email… Ultimately, doing something as advanced as this as a business just continues delivering on the promise of “being where the customers are.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see those companies that are known for great service today embrace these new possibilities in a heartbeat. (Pun intended).