Kirill Kedrinski - Fotolia

Voice user interfaces coming to the enterprise

As enterprise UX becomes more critical, VUIs may usurp traditional interfaces. For now, learn from advice and experiments, such as FinancialForce's integration of Alexa.

In the consumer world, Amazon's Alexa, Google's Asssistant, Microsoft's Cortana and Apple's Siri are gaining considerable attention and making it clear why sophisticated voice-controlled applications can be beneficial.

Voice user interfaces (VUIs) aren't just for the consumer arena. Though still in their early days for enterprise software, such as ERP, VUIs hold promise in making some work tasks easier and improving workflow in situations such as when mobile workers need hands-free access to important data.

Voice technology is promising for the business sector, but enterprises have not done much work on integrating voice user interfaces into ERP yet. But it's a good time to explore the technology since it's likely to follow the same transition from consumer to enterprise adoption as mobile apps. Enterprises could learn a few things about the implementation of VUIs from early experiments. There is also a lot to learn from interactive voice response (IVR) developers, who have been mastering the user experience (UX) around voice interfaces for over a decade. Here are some takeaways from their experiences when thinking about adding VUI capabilities.

Taking the simple route to Alexa

One early adopter of voice user interfaces for the enterprise is FinancialForce, a cloud ERP provider on the Salesforce platform. "It's actually not as difficult as people think to integrate Alexa," said Kevin Roberts, director of platform technology for FinancialForce. Indeed, the company's first VUI project was built with 130 lines of Node.js code. Tools such as Visual Workflow on the Salesforce platform, which automates business processes, made it easy to customize and change a response or action once all the parts are connected, according to Roberts.

The first experiment FinancialForce tried was aimed at giving new hires an easy way to get basic information to complete tasks during their onboarding process. With a simple spoken command, users could check basic details from their user profiles, such as job title, department, manager's name and employee number. This was implemented as a simple voice app from Alexa Skills on the Amazon platform. It uses a relatively simple programming model around what people intend to do and how the response is assigned to fields in a database or ERP module.

Voice user interfaces in the enterprise

Early on, voice user interfaces will be best in situations where voices can easily be differentiated. For example, the cacophony of voices in most areas of companies with open-plan offices will limit promising VUI initiatives. For those companies, VUI will likely first appear in conference rooms or partitioned offices, where people's voices can be differentiated.

Roberts also envisions finance, sales and HR executives using VUIs at home to ask for status updates while making breakfast or doing other tasks. Based on the vision of these additional uses, FinancialForce built the enterprise equivalent of an individualized Facebook news feed that delivers spoken highlights relevant to a user. It pulled together a summary of live data from CRM and ERP objects, including opportunities, projects, cases and sales invoices, and dynamically built a live news briefing that included commentary from departmental leaders. The app could seamlessly share information pulled from other software, such as Salesforce CRM, professional services automation, financial management and HR, into a single, easy-to-maintain flow process.

Ajoy Krishnamoorthy, vice president of platform strategy at ERP software company Acumatica, expects to see enterprises start to integrate voice user interfaces into mobile devices first, since many business apps have a mobile counterpart. He expects for them to be used for interactions such as finding the status of a purchase order, creating tasks and updating cases.

Challenges to enterprise voice user interfaces

Voice user interfaces are bottlenecked by a few limitations, such as noise and security. As mentioned, it's not practical to have everyone in an open environment speaking out loud to control their computers and devices.

Identify what works well with voice and what doesn't.
Ajoy KrishnamoorthyVP of platform strategy, Acumatica

Besides the voice differentiation issue, further development is also needed for security and identity protocols. There are no good mechanisms for authenticating users by voice alone with the current generation of VUIs. Spoken passwords are one approach, but they can also be overheard. Roberts said: "The technology is now starting to distinguish different voices, but applying permissions to each voice in a way that ensures adequate privacy without impacting user experience remains a challenge."

Moreover, voice user interfaces do not work well for many uses, such as detailed data analysis, reconciliation and nested operations. Also, it's important to understand specifically how people interact with their mobile devices when creating VUIs for those. Acumatica's Krishnamoorthy said he has seen enterprises try to recreate PC workflows on mobile and fail. "Identify what works well with voice and what doesn't."

Learning from IVR before moving to VUIs

Although the use of sophisticated voice user interfaces is relatively new, for years, experts have been customizing IVR to handle customers' basic needs when calling banks, credit card companies and airline companies, to name a few.

It's important to start with the use case testing for providing voice access to an  ERP system. Mark Stallings, managing partner at Forty 7 Ronin, an IVR design and deployment service, recommended that companies considering enterprise-focused voice user interfaces should also consider expanding on the kinds of use cases already being served by IVR systems, like interacting with HR modules. This would enable employees to utilize, for example, their Alexa interface at home. Stallings team has done a number of IVR projects that enable access to HR modules in ERP systems. The goal of such projects is to make it easier for employees to get access to things like pay history, life event management (e.g., marriage, divorce or birth) or absence reporting (e.g., out due to illness, jury duty or bereavement).

Best practices for enterprises looking to add VUIs

  • Start simple. Look at how voice user interfaces are being used in the consumer world, observing the commands and then using those lessons to justify and inform VUI projects, such as onboarding a new hire. Find success with a couple of simple experiments before moving on to more complex workflows.
  • Think about the environment. Where are users going to be accessing the information, and what are they going to be doing? Start with the conference room and executives with offices before thinking about more common uses.
  • Don't forget about security. As VUIs become more commonplace in the workplace, expect to see numerous security issues arise as a result of security being an afterthought of the build. Make sure security is top of mind while building to prevent security and privacy issues down the line.
  • Use focus groups to help identify and optimize the VUI use case. Forty 7 Ronin's Stallings said the users know best how they want to interact with the business. Similarly, the HR group can guide what kinds of questions they get asked and which tasks are the low-hanging fruit. The information from both groups of "question askers" and "answer givers" gives the designer the ability to craft a good UX.

Next Steps

Learn about voice design and why it's important

Dig Deeper on ERP implementation

Data Management
Business Analytics
Content Management