Voice interface is still overpromising and underdelivering

Cortana speakerAround 15 years ago Flash technology was in the ascendancy. One of the odd conventions to emerge at the time was the ‘Flash intro’. Very often, to build your anticipation for the website awaiting you, you would be entertained with what was essentially an opening title sequence. And if you were really unlucky, on the other side of it was a website fully rendered in Flash.

What you wanted was content; what you got was an extended journey through a designer’s ego trip (and yes I should know, I was one of those designers). The basic premise of a Flash-built website was that tricking out the interface would make for a better user experience. That assumption turned out to be wrong.

With Siri, Alexa et al entering our lives, our interfaces now have personalities. If a digital misunderstands our requests we are likely to learn about it through a witty quip. TV ads featuring virtual assistants often make a particular show of droll one-liners emanating from the device.

But as Neilsen Norman Group research shows, voice interfaces are falling far short of user expectations. It seems that priorities need to be reassessed.

A little less conversation

As part of a project last year I began designing for command line interface. With no previous experience, a terminal window or console can be a daunting place. Initially I was puzzled why user prompts and feedback in this world were so clinical and abrupt. Why would command line users not want to be addressed in a more human fashion? The answer lies in task efficiency.

Command line interface evolved from single-line dialogue between two human teleprinter operators. Over time, one end of the human-human dialogue became a computer, and the conventions remained. These interfaces provide users a more efficient method of performing tasks. In short, command line users are just like the rest of us: that is, trying to perform a lot of tasks in as short a time as possible, without surplus dialogue or clutter getting in the way.

This method of working is totally in keeping with our tendency towards ever more concise communication. Email is on the wane due to the long, unwieldy threads it encourages. The rise of chat apps such as Slack is due in large part to the tendency towards more concise messages. We’re making less mobile calls, opting instead for text messages using abbreviations, acronyms and emojis.

Many rivers to cross

As designers we are not always trying to mimic a conversation. We are creating an exchange which delivers for the user as efficiently as possible. To re-cast all human-computer interactions as conversations is to misunderstand our relationship with machines and devices.

The obstacles to success with voice UI are many. Users need to think more than once about the commands they give. They are required to speak in a manner that often isn’t natural for them. Even relatively simple queries may need to be broken down into smaller questions before reaching anything like the right answers.

When barriers are placed between a user and the outcomes they want the end result is predictable: they will simply opt out. A report from The Information suggests that only 2% of Alexa speakers have been used to make a purchase from Amazon in 2018. Additionally, 90% of the people who try to make a purchase through Alexa don’t try again.

We are still some distance away from the dream that voice UI promised. Perhaps this is voice’s Flash period, where the user needs to work hard to access the content they want. And I’m willing to bet that most frustrated users would be willing to trade every ounce of their virtual assistant’s sassy responses for just a little more efficiency.

The fact is that voice UI is still pretty hard work, no matter how hard Siri or Alexa try to entertain us.

Design for Everything, Everywhere.

As occurs frequently on Twitter, I was able to enjoy a conversation between two prominent figures of the design industry as they exchanged insights. This one really made me sit up and take notice. I’ll reproduce it in full here, short and sweet as it is:

@trentwalton: Lines between mobile, tablet & everything else are beginning to overlap to the extent that the terms are becoming useless.

@lukew: wrist, palm, lap, desk, wall, mall sized screens. human ergonomics won’t change. devices will.
@lukew: as illustrated in: http://static.lukew.com/unified_device_design.png …

To save you a tap, click or cut n’paste, Luke Wroblewski’s graphic is reproduced below.

The new device landscape by @lukew

Any given day on Twitter yields a huge number of enlightening stats, info graphics and blog posts; frequently these will be stark reminders of how the device landscape is changing. Luke’s graphic however is a statement of fact – everything is changing.

Let’s just examine the message: device sizes, interactions, input devices and resolution are at once convergent and inconsistent. Add to the mix that context and location are unpredictable and it becomes clear that there is no convenient fallback. The desktop cliché, for instance, is now archaic.

Even the popular perception of responsive web design as a requirement to accommodate different viewport sizes must go. Our new reality affects (amongst other things) tap/click area, text size, image file size, colour palette, content length… Quite simply, it affects design decisions across the board.

There is no secret formula. The future of design on the web is designing for everything. Everywhere.

People-centred design™

I’m a little late to the party here but still bemused enough at the storm in a teacup that I couldn’t let it go. Jack Dorsey’s suggestion that we need to talk about “customers” rather than “users” sparked one heck of a debate and gathered a lot of backing, but it strikes as having more than a whiff of the PR exercise about it.

The term “users” remains relevant and essential. Anyone with any experience of designing for user interfaces know for instance that marketing personas are, and should remain, distinct from user personas. One can inform the other of course; much good data can be gleaned from well thought out and comprehensive marketing personas. But We cannot allow the term “customers” to dominate.

We use devices, we interact with content. Within those two simple statements lies a myriad of questions that require answers, challenges that need addressed. To apply the term “customer” regardless of context is to give undue emphasis to a marketing-centric approach. The art and science of designing for the web has many facets, of which designing for customers is just one.

If anyone practising user experience or user-interface design was so caught up in the science of their work that users becomes some kind of abstract, then something is wrong. If that was Jack’s point, I’d be right behind him. We are designing for people.

However, Jack also emphasises the importance of semantics in support of his argument, but it is a flawed point. Before “customers” is a fit term to apply in these contexts, that word in itself would require redefining. He also argues that “the word ‘customer’ is a much more active and bolder word. It’s honest and direct”. It is not. I’d suggest there are many people interacting with their favourite apps or sites who would be horrified to find out they are regarded as “customers”.

Apple has recently put Jonathan Ive in charge of what it has historically called its “Human Interface (HI)” team, a term which if anything sounds even more clinical, impersonal than UI design. No matter though; Apple know they are dealing with people, with customers, with consumers… with users. Whatever terms they choose to use in internal processes, what really matters is the products that emerge from them. Everything else is hot air.

Return to the garden

(or: Designers Assemble!)


I shouldn’t need to declare support (again) for the pursuit of responsive web design as the future for online design. What irks me though is not so much a sense that visual design is being compromised in order to achieve a responsive outcome, but that the fact is not being acknowledged.

For what it’s worth I’m writing from the standpoint of working in a sizeable agency on many projects where RWD is not a practical option based on such factors as functionality and user profiling. You can take much of what I offer here as my opinion only, but my firm belief is that it is not mine alone.

Yin without a yang

I’ve written before about the difficulties of implementing responsive solutions in a commercial environment. As evidenced in James Young‘s excellent collation of “problems from the coalface“, designers are having mixed experiences in the transition to RWD – a situation I feel is inadequately represented in online conversations. The overwhelmingly positive spin accompanying a responsive site launch creates a subtle (but tangible) pressure on conscientious designers to ‘step up’ and deliver RWD on their own projects. Which would be fine, but the inference that RWD is desirable at any cost.

So here is a conundrum for designers that I will pretentiously moniker ‘the RWD Paradox’:

Forced to choose, what is less desirable: a visually mundane but responsive website, or a highly engaging fixed width site?

Obviously I distort for effect, but I believe that this is the uncomfortable truth for a large proportion of designers trying to pursue a responsive approach. The underlying point of RWD is that all resolutions and viewport sizes are important; it’s not just preordained screen sizes that should be accommodated. That being the case, why do many responsive sites create visual anomalies at certain sizes that we would normally find unacceptable in any other context? And if this as a natural consequence of applying RWD, then lets at least admit it.

Think outside the box (model)

It has further been suggested by more than one industry colleague that RWD promotes ‘boxy’ design, where a facet of the site’s visual appeal – part of the ‘personality layer‘ – is sacrificed to easily scaled, easily manipulated blocks. This is clearly manifest in at least one high-profile brand’s recently launched site.

Now, this is not to suggest that RWD precludes great visual design. Not at all. There are many examples of a successful marriage of the two, but they appear to be in the minority compared to the plethora of single-column portfolios or blogs that have little relevance to large consumer-facing sites.


Suppressing these issues will only exacerbate them. And yet we resize our browser windows, ooh-ing and aah-ing at every cute little piece of javascript that animates resizing images while missing an important point – users don’t care. Users want a coherent experience relevant to their situation at any given time. Designers and developers are the only people I know who sit and accordion their browser window to see how a site will respond. We’re too in love with technique because we know that somewhere, another designer or developer is going to think it’s cool. And folks, when it gets to the point when we are designing for other designers, that should ring some pretty loud alarm bells.

Return to Eden

So what should be done? We need look no further than relatively recent history for inspiration.

Dave Shea‘s CSS Zen Garden marked a sea change in online design. The site, if you are unfamiliar with it, accepts CSS submissions and applies them to a core HTML file, demonstrating in a simple and powerful manner how separating content from presentation creates a beautiful and effective flexibility. In 2003 it enlightened many designers, myself included, and put the argument for the jump to CSS beyond debate. More than that, it coalesced the design community in a way that circulating links on Twitter does not.

“Just sowing seeds..”

We need a new garden for responsive web design. Mediaqueri.es is great as an initial eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the idea of adaptive layouts, but we badly need something to give designers the opportunity to pool ideas and resources and begin raising the bar for RWD. Not a new idea I freely admit. However while it may have been hinted at, and the original Zen Garden used to illustrate adaptive potential, I have not found a straight call for a new ‘Garden’. So this is it.

We can and should learn from experience in order to forge a better future for web design. That, and be a little more open on occasions when quality has taken a back seat to technique.

Adapting to responsive

Responsive web design has reached the grand old age of two and remains the single most important shift in design and development for the web since the advent of CSS.

Broken record

I have written previously about the dangers of dogmatic approaches, emphasising that we should move in the direction of responsive design increasingly and methodically. RWD is not however a be-all-and-end-all. It is not a magic bullet for multi-device deployment. Responsive images remain a challenge, advertising doesn’t sit well with a fluid layout and, regardless of how simple the approach is pitched as, the creation of a credible responsive solution takes significantly greater time than a single-resolution site.

Here comes the future

And yet it should remain the goal. We are clearly impelled to move to responsive as an industry standard. Some of the loftier commentary recommending multiple versions of websites appears frighteningly blinkered in its naivety. We are headed only one way in the medium to long term.

One foot in front of the other

However an all or nothing stance on RWD is an equally retrograde move. Speaking as a (ahem) “seasoned” designer, shifting to an adaptive approach has been an essential stepping stone in understanding RWD as a whole. Is it better to learn responsive as standard? Of course. For any new designers starting out: take this route and don’t look back. For those who have been around the block a few times, coming to terms with full responsive as a new way of approaching projects is to put it simply, difficult. I have yet to meet a designer in industry for any amount of time with a different view.

Money, money, money

I work in a commercial organisation and to remain viable in a commercial environment, we need to deliver effective outputs that surpass expectations – within a budget. Recently we’ve committed to producing adaptive sites as standard and deviating from this only where individual projects demand it. Not committing to fully responsive for the moment, our rationale is that doing something is better than doing nothing; not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

It’s not what you do..?

As I have said before, we’re getting there and should enjoy the journey. But whether it is acknowledged or not (and it isn’t) there is a purist agenda at work in some corners of the industry. Challenge some of the more vociferous opinions and there is usually a conciliatory climb down, but the inference remains: if you’re not producing fully responsive work, you’re falling short. My problem with this is simply that it places technique over results. The means do not justify the end. There are a number of responsive sites featuring what I would regard as unacceptable design anomalies at certain sizes, and they should not be given a pardon simply because of the way they have been constructed. An adaptive approach may yet be more condusive to better overall design on certain projects.


To repeat myself (again), why create divisions where none exist. We’re all on our way. Those who fail to come to terms with the changing landscape in web access are condemning themselves to history. For those who are moving forward, there is more than one way to do so.