The Future of UX in Voice Technology

User experience (UX) is about to get one of its biggest overhauls since 2007.

In 2007, the iPhone was announced. In June, Apple placed another flag in the sand when they announced the HomePod at WWDC, set to compete alongside Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Many of the big companies have realized the value in increasing no visual interactions technology — and in the same way that touch screens and smartphones have changed the way we design (think mobile first), voice now gives us a whole new challenge.

No visual cues.

Think about a seemingly simple task you might do on your computer. Say, subscribe to this blog.

Now, think about how you would do that if you were using your voice and no visual cues.

“Subscribe to this blog.”

“Provide me updates to the channel.”

“I want to follow this brand.”

“Add my email to their mailing list.”

“Opt me in for this blog’s email newsletter.”

What may be a simple task to complete with visual design suddenly becomes a challenge when provided with voice-only commands.

Why now?

So, you might be asking, “Why are you so sure that voice technology is going to take over? After all, automated telephone systems have been around since the late 1970s. What makes voice technology so important now?”

Simply stated, technology is better than it has ever been. Accurate natural language processing (computers understanding what you say) has only recently been at a place where computers can interpret human speech in real-time. We are now at a tipping point where computers are fast enough to take speech recognition and interaction to a whole new level and make this all viable.

“…improvements in natural language processing have set the stage for a revolution in how we interact with tech: more and more, we’re bypassing screens altogether through the medium of voice… Shawn DuBravac of CTA said that 2017 would represent an inflection point in voice recognition as computers reach parity with humans, accurately transcribing speech about 94% of the time. As DuBravac said, we’re ushering in an entirely new era of faceless computing.”
~CES 2017: Key trends, J. Walter Thompson Intelligence

Also, in a time where a third of the population is carrying around a microphone connected to a computer, it’s not unreasonable to think that voice interaction is ready to take design by storm.

The Implications of Voice for Designers.

Web copy and the use of words are now increasingly important.

When you have no visual cues to guide your user, a word that may be confusing or that users may misunderstand/misinterpret will be detrimental to your whole experience. Our choice of words will guide how the user will choose to interact with and perceive us. Designers will have to develop a whole new lexicon of accepted words and phrases, much like we have today with common web design symbols.

For example, years ago, the symbol below was nothing more than three parallel lines stacked on top of each other. Now it’s used across the web universally as a Hamburger button. And this means to the user that they should ‘click here’ for a menu, or list of options.

The Importance of User Testing.

User testing and knowing your audience have always been important, but now they are even more so with voice. Visual design is language independent, and it doesn’t matter that what you may call ‘soda’, someone else would call ‘pop’, and yet someone else might call a ‘coke’.

With an image, you can clearly get across the message on what you mean. However, with voice, we will have to see not only how we might say it, but how our users will say it.

Ask yourself, “How would a user expect to do this action?” Think of all the possible ways to say something, then have someone else look at it and they will undoubtedly come up with many more.

Error Handling.

Error handling is another issue we will face with voice technology. In web copy, red font has become synonymous with ‘something went wrong.’ And this red font is often accompanied by possible resolutions.

Nothing breaks the user experience more than when one of our voice technologies fails to understand us.

UX designers will have to think of ways to gracefully fail. Possibly, they might suggest resolutions to what the user is trying to say — or, at the very least, an easy way to correct it.

Accessibility and Privacy in the Age of Voice.

Accessibility is another big issue facing UX in voice. While for some, it will completely revolutionize their lives, for others it may make products and services completely unusable.

Think of a user who is blind, or hard of seeing. Making experiences voice-related will let them do things they have never done before and be a much more intuitive experience to them.

However, when designing exclusively for voice, anyone who is hard of hearing will significantly suffer if we don’t provide an alternative method. Whether that is use of an auxiliary app, or small screen as seen in the Echo Show, we must consider these use cases.

Privacy in voice needs to be able to thread the needle between convenient and secure. For example, speaking a password out loud, particularly in a public place, will leave you vulnerable for obvious reasons. However, save your password onto your device and you may end up like one of these many parents with new XBOX games that they don’t remember ordering.

In conclusion, voice is an entirely new medium which will redefine traditionally UX norms as we know them today. And for the first time since 1981 when MTV debuted their first music video with “Video Killed the Radio Star” voice and audio may start to regain ground on visual devices.