Generational buzzwords fly thick in the news: Millennial, Gen Z, Alphas, Net Gen, digital natives, digial immigrants.

When it comes to using technology, most assume that each subsequent generation is more tech savvy than the one before it. Broadly speaking, the assumption holds true. But there are critical gaps for certain age groups around certain technologies. Case in point: Gen Z and voice interfaces.

Gen Z survey surprises

IBM recently released “Uniquely Generation Z,” the results of a significant research project on Gen Z shopping habits. Those surveyed, born from the mid-1990s through 2010, were asked about their tech and shopping habits. Most of the results were unsurprising:

  • 74% of respondents spend most of their free time online
  • 75% cite their smartphone as a “most frequently used device”
  • 66% frequently use more than one digital device at the same time

What made headlines was a result that seems counterintuitive in light of the significant online attention of this generation: 67% of Gen Z prefers to shop in a brick and mortar store “most of the time.”

Fewer than 30% of respondents were willing to share health and wellness, location, personal life or payment information. This is in contrast to Millennials, who tend to be the most trusting generation when it comes to personal information.

Similarly, a Sabre Labs survey on Gen Z technology utilization conducted in December showed another surprising result: only 9 percent of respondents use voice assistants like Apple Siri, or Amazon Alexa on a daily basis.

With all the news about “voice being the interface of the future” it seems counterintuitive that Gen Z is not using voice. It’s worth taking a deeper look at how Gen Z uses different kinds of conversational interfaces. The generational divisions help categorize behavioral trends in a way that makes it possible to take action swiftly.

Only 9% of Gen Z respondents use voice assistants on a daily basis, per Sabre Labs research.


Understanding conversational interfaces

Using either voice or text to interact with digital devices, conversational interfaces aspire to mimic human conversation. This can be using Alexa to check on the weather, Siri to get directions, or a smartphone messaging app to text with a friend or a bot.


In addition to the universal challenge of context, both voice and text have different inherent problems of input and output:

  • Voice input: Has to discern language, pronunciation, account for accents, filter out background noise, etc.
  • Text input: Has to understand abbreviations, acronyms, emojis, slang, etc.
  • Voice output: Has to understand the right amount of information to be immediately relevant, as well as when to ask follow up questions.
  • Text output: has to understand texting norms, appropriate timing, how to break up information for small screens, how to promote continued engagement, and how to use cues like slang and emojis appropriately.

Done well, conversational interfaces can build trust, increase connectedness, and lower barriers to accessing new systems and technologies, all while increasing operational efficiencies. Done poorly, conversational interfaces can frustrate people, fragment systems and greatly impede adoption.

Why Gen Z is reluctant to use voice

Millennials use a mix of both text and voice, often interchangeably, based on whatever is most convenient at the time. Today’s Millennials are the generation most receptive to adopting voice interfaces as an everyday part of life. They are largely independent, willing to share, and excited about new technologies.

In contrast, Gen Z has low current adoption of voice interfaces. This likely has several factors:

  • Gen Z has grown up texting and can send text messages quickly and with high accuracy; voice recognition doesn’t yet have the same degree of accuracy
  • Texting excels at allowing multiple simultaneous conversations. It’s much harder to use a voice interface to carry on multiple threads of conversation and search.
  • Abbreviations and emojis can make texting very expressive. Voice conversations convey information through tone, expression, and body language yet current voice recognition can’t respond to nuance.
  • Because of their current age, Gen Z spends a lot of time in shared environments. Texting allows privacy even in shared spaces.
  • Gen Z has a greater expectation of and desire for privacy than Millennials. The idea of having an always-listening device can seem intrusive.
  • Much of Gen Z is “mobile-first” or “mobile-only.” Even when using multiple devices, mobile gets priority and mobile is an optimal texting experience.

Bottom line: Gen Z are huge adopters of conversational interfaces, but their preference is for text over voice for conversational interaction. Of course, this may still change as Gen Z gets older. After all, while Gen Z were digital natives, the generation following them will be voice natives.

Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu, states his dream succinctly:

“In the future, I would love for us to be able to talk to all of our devices and have them understand us… I hope to someday have grandchildren who are mystified at how, back in 2016, if you were to say ‘Hi’ to your microwave oven, it would rudely sit there and ignore you.”

Using conversational interfaces in travel

Regardless of how you personally feel about talking to appliances, it is important for all businesses to understand how conversational interfaces impacts on consumer engagement. This is particularly true in the travel industry where we are constantly engaged with people on the move—both staff and customers. Now is the time to implement strategies for making engagement and constant communication as seamless as possible.

For now, if you want to engage Gen Z via voice, it needs to be person-to-person without a digital intermediate. Gen Z is faster than any other generation to make phone calls to businesses, but they have very low patience for lack of personal support.

For more insights on how emerging technology is impacting the travel industry (across all generations and broken down by travel segment), download the Emerging Tech in Travel 2017 Report.