Interface or Inter(Voice)? Looking at the Past, Present, and Future of Conversational UI

When we think about the emergence of ‘Conversational UI’, we need to consider two separate but intersecting evolutionary fields: the evolution of communication and the evolution of computer accessibility. There’s a little bit of the chicken and egg game going on, but looking at their past and present paths should spark much-needed discussion and analysis in regards to where we are headed.

If you’ve seen the recent Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, you got a close up look at some of the first IBM’s and how inaccessible they were. A select group of self-trained operators had to use punch cards to be able to interact with these clunky machines. Machines so obtrusive that they couldn’t even fit in the room designated for them in the film’s depiction of NASA HQ. As we all know, those machines have come a long way, and so has the barrier to entry for using them.

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Years later we saw the first PCs enter American homes, with entry-level processing power for individuals. You couldn’t do much on these, but typing slowly became a natural mode of communication, progressively competing with handwriting.

Apple then slowly infiltrated schools in the 80s, and students became well equipped for technological prowess through public education, e-mail, and speed typing tests.

One Screen To Rule Them All.

If we fast-forward to laptops, iPods and iPads, we enter the realm of touch screens. Accessibility flew through the roof, as smart phones reached the furthest corners of the world, and became intuitive to those who can’t even walk yet. There are toddlers playing games on iPads. There are rural villages in India where kids run around barefoot but have access to a smartphone.

So What’s To Come?

We still have a ways to go, but voice is next on the horizon. Not just Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, but a natural…I’ll say inter[voice] instead of interface…where all you need to do is talk.

Once the technology gets good enough, taking care of your personal to-do list will be as natural as having a conversation with your significant other. We see this projected in Joaquin Phoenix’ stunning performance in Her (2013), where Phoenix’ character develops an emotionally intimate relationship with his AI. The technology isn’t quite there yet, but it’s on the way.

The Question That Arises Is To What Degree Will This Technology Coincide With Or Shape Our Future Methods Of Communication?

Consider how our preferences have already transformed. Before the technology made typing and email feel natural, we were content with talking on phones. But then we started to be tested on our typing skills in school and we got really good at it. So email became easier, and preferable.

Let’s skip over text messaging on flip phones and the Nokias of the early 2000s. We can have a brief moment of silence for T9…

…Cue smartphones and the app industry that followed, and we have a whole new ball game. We’re throwing different mediums at millennials (and now Gen Z) and seeing what sticks. So far, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, are WeChat are winning.

And There Is One Common Denominator: Messaging.

Messaging has dominated every aspect of our lives. We use it to chat with our friends and sync with our co-workers; it’s the most fluid way to get things done. That trickles down to our interactions with companies and everyday business transactions too.

We have reached an inflection point where businesses need to get on the messaging train or they’ll fall off the tracks and out of the market.

That’s because consumers now expect the ease of messaging in everything they do. So when they have a question for customer support, being able to message the support team matches the convenience of the current conversational lifestyle.

It’s also really easy to share content like videos, screenshots and pictures through messaging. That’s key, and not something easily replicable through other modes of communication.

We live in a sharing economy in every sense of the word, and it’s hard to imagine a world where sharing written and visual content will not be an integral part of it. The marketplace today also prefers messaging because it’s what’s currently intuitive, it allows for instant communication, and it accommodates our multi-tasking-oriented minds.

You can almost simultaneously respond to your co-workers in Microsoft Outlook, while messaging your friend via Whatsapp about tonight’s dinner plans, and chat with Amazon support about processing a return.

Having different visual ‘windows’ that you can effortlessly switch back and forth between is essential to staying organized today. And those message ‘windows’ can be recalled almost instantly, giving us the power to reference and quickly skim conversations that in turn keep our interactions transparent and accountable.

Not to mention, messaging allows for a level of privacy that would be difficult to rival. There’s the obvious ‘not having to speak out loud’ component, combined with the security of using encrypted software. It’s a good recipe for feeling comfortable and maximizing efficiency all around.

So What Should We Realistically Expect From Conversational UI Moving Forward?

Let’s now circle back to that projected future where voice interaction with computers will become as seamless and natural as breathing. It’s an awe-inspiring ambition, and we are indeed headed in that direction.

We can easily see a progression towards more seamlessly using voice to fulfill the role of a personal assistant. But what else will we want to use it for? We’ve had voice-to-text for a while, and while the technology has improved usage has hasn’t followed to the same degree. So it’s important to remember that it’s not just about the technology, but whether we latch on to it and in what ways.

There will be a role for voice conversations, it’s the scope that is yet to be determined.

Messaging, on the other hand, allows for privacy and multi-tasking efficiency in ways that we might not be able to overcome until we all have chips in our brains and can communicate simply by the electric impulses shaping our thoughts.

So, here’s the question I’ll leave you with: will voice-based conversational UI completely takeover in the future, or simply complement the wonderful world of messaging that we have today?