Adventures in conversational interface: designing for the Amazon Echo

A writer without words, a singer without melodies, a painter without images: imagine if you had to do your job without the tools you normally use.

I’m a user interface designer here at the CBC. Colours, fonts, and pixels are my bread and butter. I work on the visual components of websites and apps — that is, until I started working on a team project that required a non-visual user interface.

The assignment: “design” a user journey for Alexa, Amazon’s voice-controlled service which is available on the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Echo Dot. (These devices have not yet hit the Canadian market.) Consumers command Alexa to perform “skills” — such as switching off the lights, reading the news, getting the weather report and more.

Designing the experience required that our team consider many of the same aspects that we would in visual design. How will this product be used? How can we make it easy to use? How can we make it an enjoyable experience?

We decided to focus our first skill on news presentation. Our priorities were:

  1. Using the skill should be intuitive and fun.
  2. The skill should keep users informed at any time of day.
  3. Users should be able to access specific content without hearing repeats.

With these goals in mind, the team participated in whiteboarding sessions to develop a high-level overview of the CBC Alexa skill.

Whiteboard with a handwritten flowchart showing possible user journeys

Now, several versions later, we’re ready to launch the skill with a more complex flow that accounts for the user’s interaction with Alexa.

Flowchart showing possible user journeys using the CBC Alexa skill. Yeah, we know that this flowchart is pretty unreadable… It gives you an idea of how sophisticated the flow became though, eh?

What we learned:

No instruction manuals: We had to carefully consider our onboarding process. How would we teach the consumer how to use the product? We needed to gradually introduce the user to the options available.

When someone first uses CBC on Alexa, they will be presented with a few options:

Options presented when someone first uses CBC on Alexa: “You can ask me for the “the latest newscast,” “in depth news” or [third random option]. “What would you like to hear?”

The developer on the project came up with the idea to add a random option, so that every time a user opens the CBC skill, they will hear something different. Over time, a user will be exposed to all that we offer and will eventually learn to ask for the specific programs or content that interests them.

No bot speak, please: While we were testing Alexa, we discovered that if interacting with the tool was too robotic or repetitive, we became annoyed. On the other hand, if we felt like we were talking to another human, our experience was more positive. It was therefore essential that we adjust Alexa’s commands until they sounded natural.

An example of an interaction between a user and Alexa

Camping out in the kitchen: To get a better understanding of how users might connect with Alexa, each team member tested the tool at home. We learned that consumers use Alexa during those in-between moments, like when they’re cooking dinner and want to check the weather without picking up a smartphone. This was a crucial lesson for us — we couldn’t rely on traditional user testing. Instead, we could get better insight into how people would interact with our skill through analytics reporting from actual users.

Content workflow, interrupted? An interesting aspect of this project was seeing the value of reimagining the way that content is produced. We initially thought that the Amazon Echo would be the ideal platform for our existing audio content. But as we worked with Alexa, we discovered the potential of producing content in a different way.

What if we could ask Alexa to tell us about the latest development on that big news story we heard about at lunch? While this change would require a change in the way content is produced at the CBC, it would allow users to access shorter and more relevant clips, making Alexa even more useful.

We plan on launching the CBC News Alexa skill before the device is available in Canada. We have already tested the waters with a CBC News “flash briefing” in the Alexa skills store in the US and UK, which has seen quick adoption despite the fact that there was no promotion.

But our work isn’t done. The advantage of the early release is we’ve already learned a great deal about user behaviour and refining the way users interact with Alexa.

While conversational design is the new frontier, it turns out that we’re still designing the experience in the same way that we did with visual design. The more things change, eh?