Mr. Rogers influences VUI design

By Lauren Golembiewski, CEO and Co-founder, Voxable

Jul 10, 2019

4 Lessons Mr. Rogers Taught Me About VUI Design

Like so many other American children, I grew up watching the television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show was created and filmed at my local PBS member station WQED Pittsburgh. It’s where Fred Rogers got his start in public television. Since his rise to fame, Fred has become a legend across the country, but especially in the Pittsburgh area where his likeness is memorialized by many murals and statues throughout the city. Every time I’m home, I’m reminded of the impact Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred himself continues to have, on my life and that of so many others.

Mr Rogers "The Good Neighbor"

Since its wide release last year, the critically-acclaimed documentary film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about the life and work of the late Fred Rogers brought this man and his teachings back into the limelight. Like me, many people reflected on how he became a role model for generations of children by addressing difficult subjects and aspects of human life with straightforward, honest messages.

In the 2018 biography The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, Maxwell King chronicles the story behind “Freddish” — a concept created by two writers of the show. With great success, they honed Fred Rogers’s voice by following these rules:

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: “It is dangerous to play in the street.”
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in “It is good to play where it is safe.”
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
  4. Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” (i.e., ask): “Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.”
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” (i.e., will): “Your parents CAN tell you where it is safe to play.”
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to ALL children (as in, having PARENTS): “Your favorite GROWN-UPS can tell you where it is safe to play.”
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice”: “Your favorite GROWN-UPS can tell you where it is SAFE to play. It is good to listen to them.”
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating Step One (i.e., GOOD as a personal value judgment): “Your favorite GROWNUPS can tell you where it is SAFE to play. It is important to try to listen to them.”
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand (i.e., growing): “Your favorite GROWN-UPS can tell you where it is SAFE to play. It is important to try to listen to them. And listening is an important part of growing.”

After reading about Freddish last year, I was astonished at the parallels between the Freddish rules and the voice user interface (VUI) brand guidelines my company (Voxable) helps our clients define.

The three core components of VUI brands are:

  1. Voice – The quality of the words a VUI uses
  2. Tone – The way those words modulate for specific situations
  3. Persona – The character that embodies the voice and tone

Similar to how the Freddish rules enabled different Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood writers to come together to create a singular voice, tone, and persona for the show, well-defined VUI brand guidelines help a design team align to create a cohesive conversational experience for users.

The Freddish rules inspired me to devise an exercise for the conversational design workshops that Voxable delivers to our clients. Voxable’s Freddish exercise centers around a VUI design team reflecting on how the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood writers established the Freddish rules, then working to understand or define their company’s brand and collectively creating a set of rules to describe how that brand speaks. The rules defined in this exercise are different for every team as they reflect each company’s unique brand direction.

Regardless of client type or size, we’ve found every team wanting to create a cohesive VUI voice, tone, and persona benefits from these four Freddish-inspired tips:

1. Know Your Audience

Fred Rogers excelled at connecting with his audience because he understood how language affected them. Since his primary audience was children, he used simplistic, positive phrases to build trust and communicate his message. Fred Rogers knew that words mattered and respected the perceptiveness of children. The Good Neighbor describes Rogers’s attention to language:

His secretary Elaine Lynch remembered how careful he was with each word. When one script referred to putting a pet “to sleep,” Rogers excised it for fear that children would be worried about going to sleep themselves.

When building a VUI brand, it’s important for a design team to perform foundational research to understand the VUI’s audience just as Fred Rogers understood his audience. Talking directly with users to understand their needs, motivations, and emotions enables the team to create a conversational brand that resonates with those users.

2. Start With the Core Meaning

The first rule of Freddish is “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible…” which is a perfect place for VUI designers to start when creating a voice experience. VUIs often rely too heavily on conversational flourish which can get in the way of user understanding and usability. It’s essential for a design team to establish the VUI’s reason for existence, every user context the VUI will support, and the core meaning of prompts and responses the VUI delivers to users.

A design team should only concentrate on establishing the VUI brand after a clear VUI use case has been vetted. The initial VUI designs, complete with sample scripts and flow diagrams, inform what’s generated during VUI brand development. Because natural language is so integral to the structure of a VUI, a design team should leverage real users’ voice interactions to generate Freddish exercise examples.

3. Test the Language

Every Freddish rule is accompanied by a clear example of how that rule is applied to a phrase and affects the language. Examples are an integral component to any brand guidelines because they provide concrete direction as to how to appropriately implement the guidelines. Collaborating to create examples is an important activity for a VUI design team to ensure alignment to the defined guidelines.

A VUI design team should document a handful of examples across varying use cases for each VUI brand guideline they establish during the Freddish exercise. The process of negotiating language decisions amongst a team tests the defined VUI brand guidelines and helps team members grasp the nuances in language choices that affect the overall brand.

4. Be Authentic

Part of what makes Fred Rogers legendary is the authenticity in his message and desire to affect positive change through children. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was crafted with a distinct purpose to teach children compassion for themselves and others and help them navigate the world better. Maxwell King describes Rogers’s essence in The Good Neighbor:

This is Rogers’s signature message: feelings are all right, whatever is mentionable is manageable, however confusing and scary life may become. Even with death and loss and pain, it’s okay to feel all of it, and then go on.

All aspects of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood aligned to that altruistic mission which is why the show was so effective and had such an impact.

When creating the VUI brand, a design team must consider foundational brand elements like mission, vision, and values. It’s essential to explore the ways those values manifest in conversational interactions, and how the foundational elements affect the VUI’s language.

Establishing words and concepts that are integral to the brand’s vision is helpful (For example, Mr. Rogers repeats the phrases, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” and “I like you just the way you are.”). Ensuring the VUI speaks authentically builds user trust and helps them understand the VUI’s capabilities most effectively.

“When Mister Rogers sang, ‘Won’t you be my neighbor?’ at the start of every show, he was inviting the kids watching to share their thoughts and feelings about topics that mattered to them. Nothing was more important to him than making children in the extended “neighborhood” feel not only secure, but also “heard,” especially on topics parents might have a hard time grappling with, like the death of the family dog or sibling rivalry.”

— Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers

Regardless of a VUI design team’s size, aligning various team members to craft on-brand messages using consistent language is a significant challenge. Similar to how Fred Rogers and the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood writers created the Freddish rules, defining a set of documented VUI brand guidelines along with concrete examples of their practical use helps establish the VUI’s voice, tone, and persona for more uniform, user-focused messaging. When I think about the care and intention behind Fred Rogers’s communication with children, I’m inspired to design and galvanize other designers to create similarly effective VUI experiences with users.

If you’d like to learn more about designing a successful VUI for your brand, take a look at SoundHound Inc.’s in-depth best practice guide.


Lauren is the CEO and Co-founder of Voxable, a company with the mission to improve the world with technology that understands humans.

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