Business  |  August 28, 2017

Designing for voice interfaces

Brian Colcord

Brian Colcord

VP, Design

60 years ago we saw the first glimpses of voice technology. Phone number recognition turned into transcribing sentences, and slowly, we’ve now arrived in a place where voice platforms can power highly accurate conversations that are intimate extensions of the consumer experience.

That’s why it’s no coincidence that Amazon, Google, and many others are investing heavily in voice technology and are integrating it into many products. Searching via voice is three times faster than typing, making it much easier for users to find exactly what they want quickly. Amazon is already using voice to drive purchases through search with their mobile app, on their website, as well as with the Echo and other in-home devices.

The landscape is still so new, especially when it comes to designing for voice interfaces. No one has all the answers just yet. In fact, that is part of the excitement. Even the big players in the space are just getting started. There is an opportunity to shape the voice space and find new ways to experiment and solve for these challenging design problems. But because so few have done it before you, it can also be a bit intimidating. This post will help give you some guidelines and ideas to think about when designing for voice interfaces.

Follow these design principles

If you’re looking to solve voice interface design challenges, where do you start? Here are some guiding principles we’ve found valuable in designing for voice UIs (VUI):

  • Have a compelling reason to use voice:

    Voice is a relatively new way to interface with apps and devices and users have habits that are developed already with those form factors. The solution should present a compelling reason to use voice over those existing habits (i.e. touch, click, etc.).

  • Set user expectations and build trust:

    The user should understand what is and isn’t possible with the system and if the system doesn’t understand or can’t respond it should handle those situations in an empathetic, honest and helpful way.

  • Make it naturally discoverable:

    Traditional GUIs have labels and constraints that help the user to understand where to go and what the system can do. VUIs need to be more flexible and at the same time allow users to understand what is possible when they are trying to complete a task through natural discovery.

  • Mimic how people naturally speak:

    A good way to help users complete their task is to ensure, as completely as possible, the system can understand and respond using natural language. Most systems are fairly constrained in what they can process and how they can respond.

  • Create context through modality and state:

    If a GUI is available it is essential to take advantage of it to help create a good voice experience. Modality allows the user to go back and forth between using voice and traditional interaction methods and  gives the user visual feedback. It is also important that the user understands what state they are in. Is the system listening? processing? responding? Audibly or visually it’s important to give the user an indication.

Every application and user is different, so as with any design problem you are trying to solve always ask yourself the same question: what problems are our users facing and how might we solve them? As long as you always solve for the user, you’ll be on the right track.

Test your hypotheses

When setting up user testing for your voice experience, it’s important to understand what problem you’re looking to solve for. Cortana, for example, was built off of interviews and testing with real life personal assistants, so Microsoft could understand what an ideal digital assistant would look like.

  • Build a sample dialogue of a possible interaction between your VUI and your user
  • Ask questions or assign tasks based on the capabilities or intent of your VUI
  • Get feedback on all aspects of the experience, from the visual design to the way voice impacts search, refinement, instruction, etc
  • Test, experiment and collect as much data as possible

Depending on your use case, you have to make sure your users understand how to start using voice before you roll it out fully.

Introduce your users to voice

You believe you’ve found the perfect use case for voice within your business and built an amazing voice-centric experience. But what do your users think of it? One challenge may be getting your users to adopt voice after it’s been rolled out. You need to have a strategy integrated into your UI/UX that will drive adoption. As with anything new, your users will need to be guided and taught about what it’s capable of, what it’s not capable of, and why it will make their experience better.

In this case, you should look at some of the big players in voice for guidance. For example, when Amazon rolled out voice on it’s mobile shopping app, it started with a small microphone icon that was added to search bar. Literally all you could do was search with it — it transcribed what you said and searched. Since then, the voice capabilities have evolved and expanded quite a bit. You can now ask for the status of a package, ask to play music from Prime Music, and more. Amazon started with a very small use case to get users accustomed to the new type of interface. However, they didn’t hide this feature — they elevated it to the primary navigation right away.

Voice is the next frontier of how we’ll interact with our favorite brands and complete tasks each day. By combining knowledge of your users with knowledge of voice technology, you can continuously experiment to build a truly great user experience.

Interested in learning more about the role of a voice designer? We wrote a blog post on it here.


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