The Art and Science of Adding wake word
Sep 18, 2019

The Art and Science of Creating a Custom Wake Word for Your Brand

By Karen Scates

What is a wake word? Wake words, hotwords, or wake phrases, are the utterances we use to start a voice interaction with a device or product. Commonly, wake words or hotwords begin with an interjection such as “Hey” “OK” or “Hello!” The word or words following this greeting are typically the name of the product or brand, for example, “Hey, Mercedes!”

In the above example, Mercedes Benz decided to custom brand the wake word for their in-car voice assistant, the MBUX. Other leading brands, such as Pandora, Hyundai, Harman, Kia and Motorola have also recognized the benefits of a customized wake word and have created voice user interfaces that not only improve their customers’ experiences, but also elevate brand awareness.

Custom wake words and hotwords gain popularity

Voice AI technology has awakened the imagination of people and companies all over the world. The possibilities of interacting with computers, personal devices, cars, homes and hotel rooms just by using your voice have inspired people to compare the experience to plot lines from the science fiction TV show, Star Trek. Today’s smart rooms, smart cars and smart homes are seemingly mirroring the Star Trek experience where crew members simply said “computer” to activate all the ship’s systems, get answers, control the environment and even order food.

While we still have a long way to go in the adoption of voice user interfaces for every device and brand, many industry-leading companies have already committed to providing a voice assistant for their customers. These market leaders have moved past the science of voice AI and are enmeshed in the art of creating exceptional hands-free user experiences. That experience begins with a custom wake word.

The art of creating a custom wake word or hotword

Clearly, the proliferation of personal voice assistants in the next few years will create unique challenges for brands of all sizes. If companies aren’t investing in creating a unique branded wake word for their products, they risk being lost in the noise of all the other products using the same voice platform and hotword.

An artfully created custom wake word takes into consideration a variety of factors. Here are five key elements to consider before deciding on your custom wake word, hotword, or wake phrase:

  1. Make it easily pronounceable for your intended user
  2. Reduce the incidence of false positives and negatives
  3. Avoid rhymes and other negative associations
  4. Factor in environmental conditions
  5. Plan for the future

Keep it simple and unique

If your company or product name is three or four syllables long or isn’t easy for everyone to pronounce, you might want to consider a different wake phrase (especially if you’re a global brand). Your wake word, hotword, or wake phrase should be short enough to be easily pronounced, while still being long enough to ensure you don’t trigger false positives. Best practices dictate that your entire wake phrase be three to four syllables long — including the intro word.

“Your wake word, hotword, or wake phrase should be short enough to be easily pronounced, while still being long enough to ensure you don’t trigger false positives.”

Knowing your audience is a key factor when choosing an effective wake word. For instance, if you’re a hotelier, you will especially want to test your hotword with people who have various accents to factor in travelers from all over the world. Keep in mind that some languages don’t have certain sounds so avoid wake words that contain them. Regardless of your geographical location, choosing a hotword that takes into consideration its use by a non-native speaker is a best practice for most voice applications.

You will also want to consider the average age of your user. If your product is designed for young children, there may be phonemes that are not yet developed by certain age groups. For instance, many young children in the US soften the “r” sound until they are school age. Conversely, if your target market includes mature age individuals, you may want to design your wake word to take into account the mumbling that sometimes occur among seniors who have begun to lose their hearing.

Creating a wake word, hotword, or wake phrase takes a lot of creativity, but it also requires sensitivity. If you decide you want to give your product a name, instead of having your users use the company or product name, you’ll need to think through all the connotations that name may have for people. In addition, if the name is too common, it may spark those false positives we’re trying to avoid.

When discussing customized wake words with our partners, we recommend choosing a gender neutral name that is not shared by real people and ideally one that’s an extension of their brand. Creating a name with a combination of sounds that are pleasing, but not easily rhymed has also been a successful strategy for some of the early providers of voice assistants.

Wake/Don’t Wake

One of the challenges of implementing a voice-first strategy for many brands is the fear that their customers will shy away from the product or experience due to privacy concerns. Consumer apprehension for voice interfaces has been spurred by stories of devices being prompted to wake up during normal conversations or from outside influences and ambient noise, such as a TV or radio. In extreme cases, devices have shopped for products that the person never intended to buy. While these deviations are uncommon, they tend to make the news and become the stories we share.

As voice AI becomes more sophisticated, solution providers continue developing processes to reduce the incident of false positives. In addition to these technological advances, brands can further minimize the incidence of false triggers by choosing a custom wake word that helps the device be more selective in its recognition process.

To reduce false positives, add an intro word as the first word in your wake phrase. Examples of intro words include:

  • “Hi..”
  • “Hello…”
  • “Hey…”
  • OK…”

Even when deciding on something as seemingly simple as an intro word, make sure you conduct your due diligence with your audience. For example one company discovered, “Hey..” in Mandarin is considered rude.

Less concerning from a security standpoint — but just as important from a customer experience perspective — is ensuring that your device isn’t so constricted in its wake word mode that it fails to respond to a command to wake up and remains dormant. In this case, science and art converge as testing and market research will help you determine the right path to follow.

Avoid environmental triggers

Environmental noises can create challenges for devices with voice interfaces resulting in false responses or no response. When creating your custom wake word, consider the environment in which your device or product will be used. There may be different considerations for voice assistants that will be resident in cars versus those that may reside in a home or hotel room.

“When creating your custom wake word, consider the environment in which your device or product will be used.”

In addition to the actual word or phrase considerations, be sure you are using a solution that includes data augmentation technology to eliminate false positive triggers. Using the best scientific methods, you’ll want to thoroughly test the voice assistant’s accuracy and usability within the product’s target environment.

TVs and radios have already been identified as sources of false triggers for personal assistant technology. Developing a wake phrase different than the brand words you’ll use in a commercial will keep your customers from developing negative associations with your brand name.

Your voice roadmap

Building a voice AI for your product or service today is similar to the exercise of rebranding or initial branding. Hopefully, the brand you create will outlive your current business roadmap and follow you into the future as you expand product lines and geographies. Keeping future expansion plans in mind as you design your custom wake word will help you avoid having to make too many changes in the future.

As you think about your future business plans, consider whether you want one wake phrase for all your products and for the global market or if those words and phrases might differ slightly to accommodate the distinctions in your brand across various audiences. Some questions you may want to ask yourself, include:

  • Will you have one hotword or more?
  • Will you have different wake words for every product or location?
  • Will you choose the trigger word or will you allow your customers to name your device?

As your product or business matures, you will want to continue to revisit your wake word choices and optimize them to meet long-term goals. However you begin, combining the best practices in the art of creating a hotword with the science of best technology and testing environments will help ensure that you continue to delight your customers with products that speak their language.

Your voice roadmap is a critical extension of your brand and it starts with a custom wake word. Our Houndify Voice AI platform lets users interact with your products using your own branded wake word. Houndify’s independent platform allows for full freedom of brand ownership, user experience, and customer data. Our partners like Mercedes-Benz, Pandora, Hyundai and Harman have built custom voice assistants catering specifically to their needs — ensuring their voice strategy aligns with their brand strategy. Learn more about Houndify.

Karen Scates is a storyteller with a passion for helping others through content. Argentine tango, good books and great wine round out Karen’s interests.

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