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.

And then there was… iPad

I can’t offer an objective opionion of Apple’s new progeny; I’m an Apple fanboy, a design groupie and a tech non-purist.

The ability of Apple to distill the technological zeitgeist of the near future into exhilarating new product is indesputible. I remember being underwhelmed by the iPod when it arrived. I had barely a handful of mp3 files on my hard drive at the time, and still bought CDs by the dozen. Within 12 months I had an iPod and bought my last CD in 2004.

I haven’t quite succumbed to iPhone fever yet – I’m still a pay-as-you-go luddite when it comes to phones – but the iPad could well find its way into our home. As a device for the casual consumption of digital media it looks perfect to these eyes.

The gamut of reactions to the iPad have been entirely predictable. One reaction in particular I read left me staggered though. Twitter’s Alex Payne is “disturbed” by the iPad, suggesting it is the sunset of the tinkerer: “if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today.” Wha? huh?

The opinions and ideas Payne trots out in his blog post are beyond ludicrous. Will Rock Band kill off real guitarists? Did the Walkman kill off DJs? Payne is completely missing the point: the iPad is not a PC replacement. It may be for some; for the low level user who are no sooner going to hustle some C++ than they are to learn karate from scratch, it will fit like a glove.

The iPad is designed for the convenient consumption of digital media, period. The user experience is likely to be, as with most Apple products, superior. The same inquisitive folk who might feel drawn to tinker with PCs will be inspired to look under the hood and create something for that platform. And guess what? For those people, there are SDK’s, PC’s, Mac and all the same tools there always have been.

To suggest that because Apple have added the iPad to their product line, innovation in the development industry has somehow been assassinated is simply inane.

Relax Alex, PCs still exist. All Apple have done is add a new member to their ‘nuclear family’ of products.