What does voice UX mean for designers?
At Furthermore we’re forever discussing how our role as designers is changing. Every year we see major changes to the design industry and as a result our responsibilities and skill-set evolve.
History is littered with innovations that have each been a catalyst for a major shift in design thinking. It’s often after time has passed that you realise the significance of the shift. A great example, I remember from the ’90s is the legendary Netscape Navigator, for the first time a browser could load parts of a webpage before the whole page was loaded — this seemingly small change revolutionised the browsing experience for the user, saving valuable seconds as you excitedly surfed from one page to another.
The same could be said for Cascading Style Sheets, suddenly people with little or no coding skills could understand how a website was made, designers could discuss builds on a level playing field with developers and even create them for themselves. This level of understanding meant designers started to think about the challenges they faced in different ways.
In 2007, Apple released the iPhone, suddenly phones with physical keyboards were obsolete and as a result we embraced skeuomorphism, responsive design and then flat design paradigms.
Technologies, platforms and design trends come and go, but each in turn influences what comes next. The most interesting development of recent times and one that has the biggest potential to once again shift how we approach design challenges is the rise of voice as a user interface.
From intimate conversations to commanding speeches, our voice allows us to communicate our thoughts and feelings in so many ways. A great place to start thinking about the complexities of voice is by recalling recent conversations. From conversations between strangers, group discussions or candid moments between friends through to conversations where we ask for something, inform someone, disagree or desperately try to avoid a subject altogether. The emotions we show, through both verbal and non-verbal communication with our own individual subtleties are what make us so unique.
I recently was lucky enough to hear Dr. Carolyn Mcgettigan speak about the science of speech. Mcgettigan presented a CAT scan of a colleague speaking.
It made me think about how we rarely stop to think about the effort involved in making the sounds used in speech. Mcgettigan explained how the tongue, lips, jaw and vocal cords all work together to form the intricate sounds we hear when we speak.
In order to create effective voice experiences we must first understand how the voice is created, how sentences are formed and how conversation naturally flows.
In this article Sabrina Barr talks about how the way someone speaks can say more than the words themselves:
And here Judith Hunphrey talks about how the use of one simple word can make you appear more negative than you may intend:
So what does this all mean for UX?
We must fully understand the unique properties of voice before diving head first into the practice of creating solutions.
To help us understand how users react with traditional graphical interfaces we carry out experiments, prototype and measure feedback. We gather qualitative and quantitative data to test our design hypotheses and refine experiences. With Voice UX, this is the same, with the key difference being in how we measure success and the metrics by which we do so.
In this video Mark Paulina of Google speaks about how he and his team ideate and prototype new voice interfaces. He discusses people’s emotional reactions to voice interfaces and how they differ from the reactions experienced with screen based interfaces. He considers alternative measures of success for voice UI. Heuristics such as trust become more important, as does the relationship with the consumer and how comfortable the voice makes people feel.
Mark’s talk questioned people’s perceptions of how “human” a robot with a voice can be perceived and whether as UX designers we should be considering this as an important metric for success.
8 tips for designing for voice
We have gathered some advice that helps us through the process of designing voice interfaces:
- Test and prototype quickly and often, testing a natural user interface can be as simple as having a conversation with another person in real time.
- People have emotional reactions to voice interactions in a way not seen with traditional graphical interfaces, so instead of traditional heuristics to measure success we must consider trust, the relationship and comfort.
- There are countless examples where chatbots and VUIs have got it wrong, the Apple watch fitness coach for example was deemed too aggressive by some users.
- Prototype creatively, run improvisation sessions and cover a team member’s face to observe how people converse without the advantage of visual cues.
- Embrace errors and plan for unknown replies or silence from users, a natural conversation is full of pauses, misunderstood dialogue or interruptions, so respond gracefully.
- Allow for conversations to take their own path but steer where possible — do not treat the interface the same way you might, a site navigation, people will naturally jump from one thing to another during a conversation.
- Run quick experiments using real hardware such as Alexa, a facilitator in another room and a user in the room alone with the device. Having a human in with the participant is likely to sway results.
- Remember the easiest place to start is by having conversation. So get prototyping!