The future of Voice AI design
May 05, 2020
8 MIN READ

The Current State of Voice Design and Where it’s Headed

By Jenny Medeiros

Designing voice-enabled interactions has been dubbed “the biggest UX challenge since the birth of the smartphone.” With so many factors to account for and new technologies popping up at every turn, designers (and developers) are having to constantly adapt and innovate to keep up with the possibilities and limitations of this growing medium. 

With smart speaker adoption growing exponentially year after year and more companies introducing their own voice-enabled experiences, the innovation and usefulness of your design will determine where your voice experience stands among the competition. 

To help designers untangle the many threads of voice-first design, Claire Mitchell—a consultant for product design and innovation— appeared on the Inside VOICE podcast to share her expertise on where voice-first design is today and what designers should know moving forward. Here are the main takeaways from this inspiring episode

Why we design user interfaces the way we do

As humans, we’re wired to draw from past experiences to inform present and future decisions. In design, this habit is largely why our user interfaces (UIs) are struggling to move beyond what we’ve always known them to be. 

“You have to start by questioning the way our interfaces are designed at the moment,” Claire told podcast host, Keri Roberts, before pointing out that the interfaces we use every day are based on our past interactions. We use folders to organize content, pages to keep websites tidy, and we’re still hanging on to the diskette icon to save our progress.   

Traditionally, designers have carried over these real-world concepts into new interfaces, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Old concepts bring a sense of familiarity and encourage intuitive interactions, but as we move into the era of screen-less voice user interfaces, it’s time for designers to push for new paradigms and modern metaphors. 

– Claire Mitchell, innovation and voice design consultant

What’s next for voice design?

Once designers have shifted their mindset away from traditional interface elements, their next challenges are  all about the inputs and outputs. 

Claire believes that we’re heading towards voice-enabled interfaces that leverage multimodal interaction. These novel interfaces will blend voice, touch, audio, gestures, and visuals in a single, seamless user interface.. However, she also thinks the industry currently overlooks the possibilities for input/output when it comes to conversational design. “Multimodal interaction is often an afterthought,” Claire added. 

The allure of multimodal interfaces is that they open up so many new opportunities for meaningful human-machine interactions. Not only can they enhance the overall user experience, but they also provide alternative inputs for users with non-standard speech patterns—improving accessibility. 

The allure of multimodal interfaces is that they open up so many new opportunities for meaningful human-machine interactions.

While Claire also cites Mark Webster, Director of Product at Adobe, who has repeatedly called for designers to question whether the paradigm of voice is truly useful in every use case, it’s essential to take a closer look at what makes more sense in certain contexts. For instance, it’s better to use voice to relay messages to a busy driver, but visuals are more useful for an online shopper browsing a shoe collection. 

As a side note, Claire also believes that the distinction between a designer and a “voice designer” will eventually fade. Soon enough, anyone who designs products or crafts digital experiences will need to understand voice technology and its many inputs. 

For those who are seeking greater understanding voice technology, Claire offered some advice for those just entering the field.

Recommendations for new VUI designers

The grand majority of today’s leading voice designers come from a wide range of backgrounds, which often becomes their superpower. The fact is that designing for voice involves a spectrum of talents, from an artistic flair to a general understanding of human psychology. 

It’s because of this that Claire, who comes from a diverse background in different arts and sciences herself, recommends that newcomers dabble in as many areas as possible to shape their own unique perspectives. 

According to Claire, “Innovation is really not just about novelty, it’s about the ability to see an existing challenge or situation through an unexpected lens.”

Specifically, she recommends delving into both hard and soft sciences, understanding how things work, and questioning why they work that way. While most topics may seem unrelated to voice design at first, Claire assured audiences that it’s “only in retrospect” that you’ll begin to see the patterns and realize how all the slivers of knowledge tie together.

“Keep learning, embrace curiosity and nurture your excitement for what’s possible,” Claire concludes.

To learn more about designing and developing voice experiences from today’s brightest industry leaders, check out Inside VOICE for more episodes.

Claire Mitchell is an expert on how to use effective sound design to improve VUX and VUI. To hear more about what she has to say on the topic, join SoundHound Inc.’s webinar “The Role of Voice Technology in a Post-Pandemic World.” Register here  

Jenny Medeiros is the lead writer and editor at voicesummit.ai. She loves learning about emerging technologies and thinking of ways to explain them simply. She’s also a fan of strong tea and curiously-shaped mugs.

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