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An Introduction to Voice UI and Why It’s a Big Deal

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, it would be hard not to notice the voice UI revolution that has taken place. Sure, we’ve had Siri and Cortana on our phones for years now; but, it’s only with the introduction of Alexa and Google Home that the Voice Assistant has truly taken off. This new way of interacting with technology opens up a whole world of conversation.

Especially as it, almost inevitably, means a shift in the approach to UX design. As mainstream consumers now have the ability to speak to their devices and receive an intelligent response, companies are eager to improve their interactions. Which means that UX designers need to meet this shift head-on in order to satisfy growing demand.

New Direction? Not Quite

Many people are calling voice UI a new direction in the road of UX design. But is it? 

Since the dawn of technology, humans have sought out ways to improve on the last model. The horse and cart became the car, the telephone became the mobile phone, and so on. Each time, humans have improved to make the technology faster, more efficient and better to use.

Voice is the exact same principle, speeding up a number of processes and making for more efficient use. It removes the steps of typing, accessing a phone or computer device and even being near technology for the most part. Allowing questions to be answered, shopping to be ordered and who knows what else as the technology develops.

For this reason, we can see that voice UI design will not be a complete revolution. Simply an evolution of what is already in place.

Implications for Designers

Words matter. It’s no longer simply about a product having a cohesive layout, attractive design and usability. Now, vocabulary and the way that people use words will be key to success as a UX designer. A fact which means ditching the old faithful of lorem ipsum and actually using words from the start of a project. 

Choice of words will now, more than ever, change the customer experience. After all, voice removes the visual guides that have driven customer perception until now. Meaning that voice UX designers are now fully relying on words and phrases to drive the customer experience; a difficult pursuit at the best of times!

So, a voice designer will have to accept a new level of their job description: copywriter.

User Intent

For voice interaction to truly work a standardised set of navigation commands need to be implemented. These will need to be intuitive, of course, as people are unlikely to remember a set of commands off by heart (nor are they likely to want to remember). To do this effectively voice designers need to understand user intent from the outset.

A user’s desired action is easy to determine in a visual context. The ‘delete’ button, for example, has obviously very different meanings when it comes to a Word Document as compared to Facebook. However, a voice command of ‘delete’ on these platforms, while valid for both, could have very different results. This means that interpreting user intent is vital.

One way to get around this is to think of the user interface as another person. In their 2005 book, Wired for Speech, Stanford researchers Clifford Nass and Scott Brave argue that users interact with voice activated devices in the same way that they would interact with another human, and this is a key part of the design process. “Because humans will respond socially to voice interfaces, designers can tap into the automatic and powerful responses elicited by all voices, whether of human or machine origin, to increase liking, trust, efficiency, learning, and even buying.”

When we interact with another human, we expect feedback or a response, and this becomes part of the design process. We want to know that we’ve been understood and we want to interact with something that understands the semantic nuances of language.

Adaptability

As UX designers, now is the time to adapt and develop new best practices. There are limitations to this new medium, as animation, image and sight have been stripped from the design process completely. Telling a user to ‘click here’ no longer has meaning. That is a big deal, as the clickable link is one of the fundamental ways that we encourage and enable customers to interact with content. What then, if anything, can replace this in voice design?

When designing responses, we have to think about the limits of the average person’s attention span. Responses need to be designed in a way that condenses the practical information into a manageable chunk. When we ask for directions to a shop close to us, we want to know every step of the process. But when asking for directions to another town, walking the user through every turn in the road isn’t going to be practical.

When asking for the best route to the next town, a summary of the direction and which major road you need to be on is going to be more practical. The ability to understand user intent is always going to be the biggest challenge faced by voice assistants.

One solution has come from Google itself. They have developed an app which allows for Google home to turn voice answers into a clickable link in the app. However, before we all start running to the nearest app developers for our own versions of this, we have to ask: is it practical?

Perhaps not in the long run. Consumers will expect a truly hands-free solution, eventually. So, this method of drawing them to the screen alongside voice search won’t last. At least, not as a long-term solution. So, what is the answer?

Truth be told, it hasn’t been discovered yet. And that is why voice design matters. As a voice designer, you get to be an innovator and play a role in shaping the new technology. In an industry overflowing with supposed ‘UX masters’ that is a unique position to be in, one which will push your client’s and your business to the next level.

Overall, to ensure successful voice design, simply keep your eyes closed and pay attention to your users’ needs. This is a search method which developed rapidly in 2017, showing no signs of stopping in 2018, and UX design still hasn’t quite got to grips with it yet. Voice is gearing up to be one of the leading technology innovations of this decade; so put yourself ahead of the game sooner, rather than later.

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