Less is more as companies explore shopping by voice

When the world shifted from personal computers to smartphones, websites had to slim down to work on smaller screens and slower wireless connections. A similar shift to voice-centric services is again forcing businesses to rethink how they present information to consumers — and spurring new efforts to help them do so.

The software company Adobe, for instance, announced on Tuesday a new suite of tools that could help airlines, retailers and other companies create simple voice interfaces for travel and shopping. It's not a simple task, since a voice-based digital assistant can't really list dozens of flight options or hundreds of products.

That means companies have to figure out how to winnow down those choices to the travel options or products people are most likely to want — an inherently fraught undertaking.

The technology is still in its infancy, and Adobe doesn't have any actual corporate partners to showcase yet. But its announcement, made in conjunction with a tech show in Barcelona, Spain, shows that voice assistants are becoming important channels for reaching consumers.

Amazon's voice-shopping feature already boils down shopping requests to one or two options and makes buying easy because it already has payment and shipping information for voice-eligible customers. But smaller businesses don't have the computing resources and expertise to match that, which is where companies like Adobe come in.

Analyst Carolina Milanesi with Creative Strategies says she's not aware of another service trying to help companies improve how they reach their customers through voice.

In practice, making voice capabilities useful means anticipating what customers want. Travel sites, for instance, let people limit a search to, say, nonstop flights, but that's more cumbersome when they're talking to a service. Adobe promises to help narrow those options automatically, so that someone who earns points in United and likes early morning flights might hear only those matches.

Adobe's new voice service will work with all major voice assistants, not just Amazon's. It will limit its analysis to data provided by the particular company people are shopping at, instead of trying to pulling together a more comprehensive personal profile from multiple sources.

That will limit the accuracy of its personalization compared to what Adobe says it could provide. But the company believes consumers aren't going to be comfortable with that broader profiling yet.