OK Google – what’s the future for UX and voice interaction?
Too comfy to lean over and switch on your alarm?
Hands knuckle-deep in dough but need to check the recipe for rock cakes?
Performing CPR but need to ring an ambulance?
Whatever your objective, you can now perform a number of technical tasks with nothing more than the power of your voice. Between Siri, Hello Google, Cortana, and now Alexa (which Amazon’s recently made available directly in its shopping app), commanding your devices with your voice enables you to do more than ever.
But where is voice interaction going to lead us? Will digital experiences no longer need to be visually dynamic, with vocal commands taking users to the page rather than bright, eye-catching CTA buttons? And will content take on a more colloquial, conversational manner, mimicking our imperfect speech to satisfy search requests?
Whilst voice may not quite put everything else into an early grave, it’s crucial to consider where it fits into your digital offering. This way, you can ensure your website stays relevant and valuable to your users’ needs.
Is voice interaction here to stay?
Unlike many other technology fads, voice recognition and interaction is standing the test of time. It’s been around since 2009, and becoming more advanced and widespread as time goes on.
It’s so integral to the various tech giants’ business plans that Amazon’s Echo advertising has centred on the vocal responses of the software, and Apple has redeveloped Siri for iPhones 6s onwards to respond to nothing more than your voice – you don’t need to press a single button.
Having an intuitive, personified element to the devices we use every day does more than just make us feel like Iron Man using Jarvis. It allows us to get to know our products in a way that never existed before. In the 1980s, it was a miracle to hear someone else’s voice at the end of your wireless phone, so hearing a voice actually coming from the phone itself opens up a world of possibilities that businesses can exploit.
It already feels like Google understands you when they offer you the ‘did you mean X/Y/Z?’ prompt when you make a typo. So imagine your watch or tablet piping up with ‘is this what you’re looking for?’ when you get your words jumbled – it automatically starts to feel like a conversation.
This is a sure-fire route to consumer loyalty. Being able to converse with your technology is one of the key things Google picked out in 2013 as a measure of digital success, and it creates a new kind of relationship between product and user.
Life may not be a competition, but business certainly is. And when it comes to leading the voice search market, it’s a particularly fierce battle.
Now that we’re all becoming accustomed to commanding devices with our voices, it’s a matter of who can produce the service that gives the best results. By ‘best’, we typically mean something that will fit seamlessly into our lives, behave like a digital PA, and make us all forget how we ever coped without it.
Alexa communicates with your other apps in order to get the job done, and this convenience seems to be helping Amazon into pole position. Saving you the elbow grease has helped Amazon sell over 5 million Echo units since the Alexa voice search software was launched.
Does personality matter? Sure, or else brands wouldn’t invest so much time and effort into developing them. Siri nearly broke the internet in 2015 with its Cookie Monster jive, and there are a tonne of fun things you can get OK Google to do, so personality is clearly important.
However, being useful is what elevates voice interaction from a cute gimmick to the can’t-live-without-it level of technology. There are countless stories about lives being saved because someone has been able to administer care while voice commanding their way to a paramedic; clearly there is an important place for voice search in our lives.
When voice search can help in matters of life and death, it’s not just the brand that wins – we all can.
Will visual user interfaces still matter?
The power is shifting away from visuals towards voice interaction, but is one outweighing the other? While 2017 may well be ‘the year of voice search’, it’s important to remember that this is still a digital phenomenon which is very much in its infancy.
Last year, Google announced that voice search made up just 20% of its mobile searches. Since voice search is far more practical on a hand-held device than a desktop, it is evident that it has more growing to do before we can consider it a short-term threat to visual design.
In the long term, though, Zero UI (the idea that interacting with your devices has no dependence on the screen) could mean that interaction designers have to reconsider how much of a priority visuals are. In this case, content would trump design in terms of importance.
However, that assumes that voice interaction is suitable for every digital task, which it probably isn’t. Considering the following factors, a screen-less future seems a somewhat dystopian exaggeration:
- Environmental factors:
No matter how clever voice search gets, will it eliminate all the noise around you? Increased ambient noise levels are likely to always be problematic for the likes of Siri and co.
- Task complexity:
Telling you when the next train to St Pancras is simple enough, but could you ever operate picture editing software (for example) by voice?
- Information complexity:
When it comes to explaining what something looks like, vocal descriptions will always lose to a good image. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all.
- Sensitivity and confidentiality:
Not many of us are keen on filling in our bank details by voice command, and who wants to buy a cheeky present for your loved one by voice when they are somewhere within earshot?
OK Google – what’s the future for UX and voice interaction?
Voice is undoubtedly going to become more widespread among users as a method of interacting with a digital experience. While it’s unlikely to kill off physical interaction altogether, businesses must understand that with mainstream adoption comes an expectation from users – they will expect your experience to cater for voice interaction where it works for them.
The key then is to investigate how voice interaction will fit into your customer journey to ensure your that user experiences stay relevant and useful.