In 2017 we saw continued excitement and hype around ‘conversational interfaces’–interfaces that allows users to interact with machines using natural language. While conversational UX also includes text-based conversations, such as those we have with chatbots, this post is just going to focus on voice-based conversations. Voice user interfaces (VUIs) are hitting the mainstream and becoming ubiquitous in our daily lives. We can find them in smartphones, smart homes, TVs, and a range of other products. The rapid development of voice interaction capabilities in our daily lives makes it clear that this technology will soon become an alternative to graphical user interfaces.
According to Gartner, by 2018, 30 percent of our interactions with technology will happen through conversations with voice-based systems.
In this article, I explain how VUIs will change the way we interact with digital products and what this change means for designers.
Why VUIs Are On The Cusp of Becoming Mainstream
Before we dive into the details of VUIs, it’s important to understand the reasons why VUIs suddenly became popular. There are a few things that lead to rapid adoption of this new interaction medium.
Voice Provides A Natural Means of Interaction
One of the main reasons VUIs are so fascinating is because conversation using words is a natural form of communication for people. What’s especially great is that people associate voice with communication with other people rather than communication with technology; human brains are fundamentally wired to interpret the source of speech as human. This means voice interaction systems can be a more natural way of interaction than visual interfaces for the vast majority of users. By removing a visual interface and replacing it with a voice, users are placed in a much more familiar context.
People have long been using intermediaries called interfaces to interact with technology. A majority of modern interaction systems are based on an intermediary called a graphical user interface (GUI). Unfortunately, GUI isn’t the most obvious way of interaction with a digital product; it requires users to learn how to use the interface first and recall this information during each next interaction. In many situations, a voice is far more convenient than a GUI because interacting with a VUI simply requires a user to speak to the device. An interface that doesn’t force users to learn and recall specific commands or methods of interaction creates less friction.
Both Technology and Users Are Ready for Voice (Finally)
While VUIs might seem like a new concept, they have been around long before the first GUI. One of the first VUIs, called Shoebox, was created in the early 1960s by IBM. It was a forerunner of today’s voice recognition systems.
Further development of VUI systems was limited by computing power. It takes a lot of computing power to break down and interpret human speech in real-time, and it took more than 50 years to reach the point where it was even possible. Now we’re entering a new era of computing, where advances in machine learning and AI are creating the potential for conversation as the new mode of interaction with technology.Another important factor that has had a strong impact on VUI development is the number of devices that support voice interaction. Today almost 1/3 of the global population owns smartphones that can be used for voice interaction, and it’s easy to predict that the majority of users is ready to adopt voice interfaces.
How VUIs Will Change The Way We Use Products
Save time on routine tasks
Even though current voice VUIs don’t solve any new problems, they solve existing problems in a way that can significantly improve life for many people. Checking the weather, setting alarms, replying to an incoming message, searching for the recipe — these are routine tasks for many of us. Of course, it’s possible to do each of these things using smartphones or a computer’s GUI, but it’ll require users to turn their attention to a device to do so. People often prefer voice interfaces because of the benefits of hands-free interaction, primarily when using them at home or in the car.
Advanced voice assistants
VUIs will become essential as personal assistants. New technologies will make it easier to provide tailored digital experiences for people, so imagine a personal assistant that not only understands your current needs but also predicts your future needs. It will be able to aid in every aspect of your life, even the areas you don’t think about.
From stand-alone apps and services to unified platforms for interaction
Right now, web and mobile is mess; each time users have to buy something or use a service, they have to download an app and create an account. That’s where voice-based systems can really evolve. VUIs will stop users from the need to install a lot of different apps or creating separate accounts for each service they use. Instead, it’ll bring them all together through a conversation. Why download an app for booking a flight or ordering a pizza when you could potentially connect these services to a chat interface you can speak to in the same way that you speak to other people?
Standard way of interaction with IoT devices
These days it’s not only your phone and your computer that connected to the internet. Smart thermostats, lights, kettles, and many other Internet of Things (IoT) devices also have an internet connection. We’ve got these wirelessly connected devices that are filling our lives now, but not all of them naturally suit a graphical user interface. Using a VUI will help integrate such devices easily into our environments.
Make Experience More Personal
Voice-based interaction will create a deeper personal connection between a user and a system. Even today, a lot of Amazon Echo and Google Home users establish a close bond with their device — they think of the device more as a friend than a product.
Life-changing UI for those users who can’t adapt to visual UIs
Vastly-improved accessibility is one of the most impactful benefits of voice user experiences. VUIs can extend the power of computing to people who are unable to use screens and keyboards. Just read the reviews of the Amazon Echo and you’ll find a lot of inspiring stories shared by visually-impaired users about how the device has changed their lives.
How VUIs Will Change The Way We Design Products
It’s clear that voice user interface design will soon become a key strategic skill for designers. Here lies the real challenge: the majority of UX designers are trained in crafting experiences for physical input and graphical output. Designing for voice, on the other hand, is very different from GUIs, and designers cannot apply the same design principles and guidelines. The need to create voice-based systems will encourage designers to focus more on the following aspects of design:
The major objective of VUIs is to minimize a user’s efforts to communicate with the system. It’s clear that voice-based interactions between a user and a machine can lead to potentially infinite possibilities of commands from a user and, while it’s impossible for designers to predict every possible user command, it’s still possible to create a contextually-driven user flow. The key to success is in getting the conversational flow right. To achieve that, it’s important to understand the user’s initial intent (a reason for interacting in the first place) and try to anticipate users’ needs and expectations at each point in the conversation to shape the appropriate response.
On a graphical user interface, a designer can clearly show users what options are available. It’s impossible to do the same for voice interfaces; there are simply no visual affordances for VUIs. Consequently, if you just look at a device that supports voice interaction, users won’t have any idea what the interface is capable of. Designers need to use context-specific voice suggestions that set clear expectations of what the voice-interaction system can do.
While GUIs make it possible to show a lot of different options at the same time, verbal content requires designers to keep information brief so that the user does not become confused or overwhelmed (people lose attention after 10 to 15 seconds of listening to a prompt). Designers need to keep in mind the “less is more” principle and apply it to a conversation by prioritizing information they deliver to end user.
The need for voice user experience is real, and these experiences already change lives every day. While VUIs might not replace existing visual experiences any time soon, adding voice UI to extend an existing experience can have a major impact on users. Hopefully, this will lead us to a more accessible world.