Chances are, at least one conversation you’ve had in the past 24 hours began with “Hey [insert name of virtual assistant]”? That conversation probably included some simple back and forth wherein you asked for a snapshot of your day, a preview of the weather, or to turn up your podcast. While this functionality may increase our ability to multitask, does it really do anything to positively impact our well-being or quality of life? Can voice UI (VUI) move past our daily virtual experiences and integrate deeper into our real-life ones as well?
In some cases, it already is and will increasingly find its way into many companies’ technology plans — and for good reason. The more you can incorporate a voice UI component into your project, the more robust your users’ experiences will be.
In fact, I personally experienced one such instance recently.
Your Call Is Important To Us
A couple of weeks ago, as much of the U.S. was in the midst of a particularly brutal polar vortex, my car’s battery succumbed to the cold. Obviously, I was not alone as there were reports that AAA’s response time was anywhere from eight hours to flat out telling people they wouldn’t help them if it wasn’t an emergency. My own call to my insurance company’s roadside assistance line was met with a shockingly high estimated call hold time of several hours — time that I didn’t have to spare.
But then, some much-needed relief arrived in the form of a simple virtual voice prompt: “To submit a claim online, press 2.”
What followed was a perfectly seamless and downright easy user experience. Upon pressing 2, I received a text message with a link to a web application where I could submit my claim. Along the way, I was guided through the entire process by the voice on the other end of the line. Not only that, it was adapting to my needs as we went. If it felt that I was taking too long with a response to a question or a command, it had the foresight to rephrase its request to help me better understand what it was asking me to do.
Within mere minutes, I was off the phone with a claim confirmation waiting in my inbox. If it weren’t for that voice, I’d likely still be on hold being assured that my call is important. Something like voice functionality may seem like just a slight convenience but, in this case, it was much more than that. It saved literal hours of my day and provided peace of mind in an otherwise stressful situation.
These types of small yet significant interactions have a major impact on a user’s experience. If it can improve upon something as mundane as waiting on hold, imagine where else it can have an impact.
Designing Beyond The Disembodied Voice
It’s been over seven years since Apple introduced the world to Siri and since then, we’ve also welcomed Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s aptly named Google Assistant into our lives. While all three major players have continuously made drastic improvements, they still only scratch the surface of possibilities with voice. At their core, these three voice interfaces are just that: interfaces. The above example offers a glimpse at how voice UIs can become full-blown experiences.
Let’s think about healthcare for a moment. Imagine you have an injury that requires some physical therapy. You have to plan your day around it and, while it’s obviously necessary for your recovery, it’s also a pretty big pain (pun intended). Now, imagine achieving the same level of physical therapy without ever leaving the comfort of your home. You’re guided through the entire experience via virtual voice. It interacts with you, gives you instructions and makes sure you’re doing things properly. It even makes small talk with you.
For now, this example is a hypothetical — but not for long. Researchers at Duke are currently piloting a virtual therapy program to test its viability. Results are promising so far with the research team finding that going virtual accounts for an average cost savings of $2,745 per patient. If we look at other possibilities in healthcare, like clinical trials that adhere to a specific mediation of feedback schedule, those savings only increase. Virtual voice integrated into clinical trials could look like reminders for patients to take their medication or asking them questions about their pain levels, symptoms, and side effects.
When voice enters the picture for a company’s or industry technology roadmap, the possibilities are practically limitless. As such, UX Designers should not only learn the basics of VUI but also begin thinking about how voice can fit into various aspects of a project. Is it appropriate for the entire project to be voice-based or does it make more sense for the experience to begin with voice prompts and lead back to a physical interface — or vice versa? The early on in the process that you can decide where and how voice integrates into the project, the more impactful the end experience will be.
Voice: The Final Frontier
If the above examples tell us anything, it’s that users are ready for voice to move beyond the souped-up search bars of Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant and into something more substantial. While we’ve now entered into a much more conversational and command-based VUI world, for the most part, voice control is still largely unexplored territory. It feels reminiscent of the early days of touch screens when no one really knew the lasting effect they would have on the tech world. At this point, however, it’s safe to say that voice UI is here to stay.
As things continue to progress, we’ll begin to see voice integrate into many of our daily experiences to varying degrees — be it for accessibility, ease of use, or just for fun. This integration is already materializing in the form of smart homes. With a simple voice command, we can dim the lights, control the temperature in the living room, or even preheat the oven. For a user with limited mobility or other hindered accessibility, this takes voice well beyond a superficial convenience and moves it into a tangible improvement to their quality of life.