voice design

Voice design is the process of planning and mapping all the possible interactions that might occur between a voice assistant and an end user. Voice design is a relatively new field and it can be referred to with a variety of names, including conversation design, voice user interface (VUI) design and voice user experience (VUX) design.

The goal of voice design is to create a conversational flow that makes interactions with voice assistants feel natural. Users report that the greatest benefit of voice technology is that it is hands-free and saves time.

Voice design vs. graphic design

Voice interactions are designed to be conversational by nature and require a different design approach than visual-first interactions. While graphic designers typically use digital wireframes or draw out ideas on a blank whiteboard, a voice designer typically uses flowcharts to map out basic, potential  conversations between the user and the voice application. Mapping conversational flow is perhaps the hardest part of voice design because there are so many variables.

Voice designers must decide whether their virtual assistant will have a personality and keep in mind that voice-enabled devices will be used in different contexts than visual-centric devices. While using a visual-centric device in a public place like a library has no bearing on the user-device interaction, using a voice-enabled device in the same context could be problematic. The noise level around a voice-enabled device matters and could compromise usability in ways that graphic designers do not have to worry about. Voice-enabled devices also make the act of browsing more difficult. It takes much less time to scroll through a list than to listen to it being read.

However, voice design's focus on conversation means that voice products can be designed to be more accessible for people who have visual or mobile impairments, or who can't use their hands in a certain situation -- for example, while driving. People can use voice to turn lights on, shop online and search the web, all without looking at a device or standing. Furthermore, user experience designers can incorporate voice technology into digital products to make them more conversational and accessible.  

Voice design is a relatively new field in the broader study of user experience (UX), so designers don't have a codified set of best practices and are still learning how to best deal with the novel problems that arise during the creation of VUIs.

Why is voice design important?

Voice assistants -- such as the Amazon Alexa, the Google Assistant and Apple's Siri -- are a growing part of our everyday digital lives, and they are expected to keep increasing in prominence. Many consumers have already reported using a smart speaker at least once a day. People have embraced the medium of voice and companies are noticing.

As both consumers and brands adopt voice technology, VUI design capabilities and expertise will become essential for companies to remain competitive and create engaging experiences for customers. The hardware and software that make human-computer conversations easy and natural is now available, but for voice to achieve its full potential, the conversational flow has to be designed properly.

Responsibilities of voice designers

When designing a voice experience, designers must work in accordance with a specific pattern for interactions. It begins with a wake word  -- a command that a user says to the digital assistant to begin a conversation. When the assistant hears the wake word, it will trigger an intent -- an action tied to a specific utterance.

Voice designers are responsible for mapping each potential utterance and linking it to an intent. This ensures that the voice service will activate the correct action based on the mapped intent. Once the action is completed, the voice application may respond with a prompt that will drive the next step of the dialogue.

This pattern is how a standard interaction goes when it stays completely on track -- or on the happy path. However, natural conversations frequently diverge from the expected course. Therefore, it becomes the voice designer's responsibility to account for all the different ways that a conversation can stray from the designated path and create ways for the virtual assistant to adapt to unexpected situations while ensuring the interaction remains conversational and natural.

It is important for voice designers to understand the various emotional responses that people may have to voice interactions as well as the unique characteristics of different voices. These skills are necessary when training the voice assistant's natural language understanding (NLU) engine with a range of utterances, so it can be trained to improve voice recognition and provide appropriate responses.

Principles of voice design

Some of the various principles that voice designers should follow include:

  • The VUI should be useful -- it should be created with the intent of fulfilling a need.
  • Designers should be able to empathize with users. They should understand what the user wants, how they might react and how certain responses from the voice assistant might affect them.
  • The system should be easy to use. Designers should focus on natural language and create a system that allows users to speak in their own words -- as if talking to another human.
  • The VUI should provide credible information that users can trust.
  • Designers should create a voice service that always keeps all options available, with no hierarchy assigned to the responses.
  • Designers should create a VUI that makes the voice assistant relatable and talks with the users, rather than at them.

To produce effective VUIs, voice designers can use a process like user experience (UX) design. They should focus on:

  • User research
  • Prototyping
  • User flow and user journey map design
  • Usability testing
  • Iterative design

Applications of voice design

An example of a user's interaction with their voice assistant could be when they ask for movie times. In this situation, the voice assistant should be able to ask the necessary questions to supply the correct information.

The interaction could include the initial utterance of the user asking for movie times, followed by the voice assistant asking which theater they would like to go to. The voice assistant should be prepared for any variety of answers that the speaker provides. The user could know the exact name of the theater, or they could provide a nickname or shortened version. They could even change their mind in the moment and decide to look for a pizza restaurant instead. Voice designers must prepare VUIs for all these possibilities so the system can eventually lead the user to a final, helpful decision.

Another example is the integration of Microsoft Cortana into Outlook for iOS. This feature allows Outlook users with Apple devices to use Cortana through the Outlook mobile application to schedule notifications, read and send emails, and label, archive or delete emails once they have been read. This is part of Microsoft's ongoing attempt fully integrate Cortana into Office 365, and get rid of the standalone Cortana app.

In addition to these specific examples, voice design is finding applications across a wide range of industries as more and more organizations adopt VUIs and change the way they carry out processes. Examples include:

Banking, where voice assistants are being used to allow customers to interact with their accounts. The company Best Innovation Group has created a platform that allows financial institutions to provide voice-first banking. Users can access account statements, pay their mortgage and loans and transfer between accounts using smart speakers.

Healthcare, where ambulances in New England have started using voice assistants to eliminate unnecessary paperwork, allowing emergency responders more time to focus on the needs of the patient. Nursing homes and senior living facilities have also started using voice assistants to help seniors suffering from feelings of loneliness, depression and isolation. Software company Triad Health AI has created a voice product that uses smart speakers to improve exercise for people suffering from Parkinson's disease. Their activities combine movement, voice and cognition.

The hospitality industry, where Marriot has incorporated Amazon Alexa-enabled devices throughout five of its major hotel chains and Hyatt has started providing Google Assistants to assist guests with translations. Travel companies -- including Kayak and Expedia -- have also started providing voice-first services and restaurants -- such as Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts -- have begun incorporating voice ordering capabilities.

Monetizing voice design

As voice design continues to grow, companies have started to use it not only to improve customer experiences, but also to increase their profitability. Companies are experimenting with conversational ads and voice search abilities, turning what used to be one-way marketing into a two-way conversation.

Chatbots are being used to serve customers valuable information -- such as product recommendations, store information and upsells -- based on the customer's profile, personal preferences and purchase history. This will allow companies to be involved in the customer's decisions both before the purchase has been made and after.

Companies may also start paying to have their ads played by voice assistants. Google first tried this type of partnership when it started playing an audio ad for the new Beauty and the Beast live action film anytime a user asked their Google Assistant about their daily schedule. However, Google denies it was an ad and has not shown any other attempts at integrating advertisements into their voice service.

This was last updated in December 2019

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