What we learned designing a virtual assistant

Mike Dunn
Mike Dunn
Jan 9, 2019 · 2 min read
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Photo by Paul Esch-Laurent on Unsplash

I spent a good chunk of last year designing and user testing a ‘virtual assistant’ for a major entertainment brand. So I was interested to read a pair of articles from Neilsen Norman about chatbots and intelligent assistants. Our virtual assistant worked liked the former, with text input and a chat interface. But it had the increased intelligence of the latter.

On chatbots, NN/g say:

These bots simply replicate functionality that is already available on the web or in mobile apps. Is it worth spending time and money for this new channel? Unlikely — at least in the US and other countries where the traditional channels are already well-established.

This was definitely a question we heard. We faced scepticism over whether we’d created a worse-than-useless chatbot who’d insist on doing site searches for you. If you’re old enough to remember Clippy, you’ll know this feeling.

Things get more promising when it comes to ‘intelligent assistants’ like Alexa (emphasis mine):

Users have great difficulty accomplishing advanced tasks with traditional computer systems: only 31% of the adult population in rich countries are capable of performing tasks similar to the multitask and research needs in our table, when using traditional user interfaces. Since more than two thirds of the population don’t have the required computer skills for doing anything advanced with current computers, there’s great potential for helping these many people if the intelligent assistants were in fact good enough to take over the tasks.

But one problem with ‘smarter’ virtual assistants is that people’s low expectations persist:

Although about 41% of the needs could be addressed by one of today’s assistants (if counting generously), only in 7% of the cases did users actually attempt to address a need using Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri. This difference indicates a gap between users’ expectations of these assistants and what they can actually do.

We found this too. In our user testing sessions, participants were consistently surprised (in a good way!) by what the virtual assistant could do. And all types of virtual assistant seem to suffer from this: “even good chatbots … have little chance of being discovered and considered useful”, while “people won’t bother trying to use [intelligent] assistants if it’s easier to address the need by some other means.”

So we’re a long way from people really, truly believing a virtual assistant can reliably help them. We’re even further away from the day where they’ll actively seek out a virtual assistant over other solutions. But I can confirm from experience that we’re getting there, which makes for interesting times.

If you’d like to chat to me some more about virtual assistants, or anything else, the best place to find me is on Twitter.

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