In the beginning was the voice

David Llewelyn-Jones

4 minute read

How a new interface is being tested and optimised for contemporary needs and the coming robot revolution.

Along with some PA and Friday colleagues, I attended a conference recently that looked to summarise takeaways from CES and discuss some of the overarching trends of the conference, one of which was voice. Highlights of those discussions feature below, as well as liberal borrowing from a recent, excellent podcast on CES by the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, which can be found here.

CES often steals headlines for playing host to flagship announcements of new products. In the show itself, huge corporations vie for attention alongside father-and-son stalls. You quickly get a sense of who or what is being given a really big push. A year or two ago, this was curved screen technology on televisions. This year those were nowhere to be found (indicating those products had not exactly set the market alight). In its place, smart devices proliferated; Amazon and Google were everywhere with voice product integration. This push sat alongside products such as wireless recharging for drones (impressive), as well as the TV jockstrap (less so).

What’s the deal with voice?

If TVs (stubbornly) and smart homes were a couple of big themes, the rise of voice was another. 1 in 5 searches on Android devices were conducted via voice, and that was in 2017. Android’s parent Google, along with Amazon, dominate the voice device market, with a combined 80% market share in the UK forecast for this year. The uptake of such devices (helped by the low selling price) has been staggering. However, it appeared many products with Alexa or Google integration did not support voice control, and it is worth bearing in mind that only 3% of voice apps get a return visit after a week.

It is with this stat in mind that Sina Kahen of VAICE presented some brief thoughts on how to create a positive experience through voice interaction, with the thinking that a great first interaction increases retention likelihood. Sina used the analogy of a first date, commenting that bad dates were the result of impolite or uninterested interactions (all too easy when speaking to an inanimate object), whereas a good date results from your partner being sensitive (i.e. understanding context), having flow (i.e. giving a sense of the journey you are on, how near the end you are) and recovery (i.e. what happens if something goes wrong, do you have to start all over again).

Later in the day, Tandeka Lauriciano of Ekino took us through some sound (no pun intended) UX principles for voice, including:

  1. Sound rational

    Less “there has been an authentication error”, more “that’s the wrong password”; asking questions such as “would you like to hear more options?” rather than just stating “I can give some more options”

  2. Set expectations

    Make it clear what your voice user interface can and can’t do; give them confirmations and let them know everything is on track

  3. Listen

    Gather the information needed to help users with their task

Accompanying these more abstract discussions were also compelling use cases of voice for important institutions like the Metropolitan Police – it seemed clear that the emergency service is looking to make a cohesive, simple digital interface that also presumably reduces effort and overhead internally - as well as a great piece of work from our colleagues at PA for a local county council that sought to improve the quality of life of those with physical disabilities, by providing Alexa devices. PA’s efforts were focused on whether voice devices could help people with disabilities lead more independent lives. Evidently, from the video I witnessed, this was the case. Individuals were able to do things from the urgent – being able to ask Alexa to call a sibling – to the emotional – requesting a song be played – that previously would have been nigh impossible. While these individuals may have found it challenging to turn a light off in the past, Alexa was able to transform this activity into a manageable event that gave the individual a degree of greater freedom.

What’s next?

Voice is still in its infancy, but more than that it seems secondary to the coming revolution – and demand for – robotics. A recent article in The Economist hinted at the growing need in ageing countries for service robots; extending human activity, rather than replacing it. In thinking about how we will interact with such devices, voice seems like a natural option.

It’s an issue that those involved in service design, UI and UX are already in high demand for, helping organisations to explore ways to test and optimise a new consumer interface without clear guardrails. Setting standards and experimenting with use cases, both of which were explored in this conference, serve as a great starting point.

David Llewelyn-Jones

Strategy Director
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