How to approach the development of voice UI


30th January 2020


7 min


Dale Jones

On Tuesday 30th January‚ hedgehog lab hosted its fourth instalment of flagship event Innovate Now. With focus on voice-activated solutions‚ we were joined by Amazon’s Andrea Muttoni and Northumbrian Water‘s Martin Jackson.

The pair provided excellent talks‚ each offering entirely differing perspectives. As a developer of Alexa Skills himself (a skill is to the Amazon Echo what an app is to your phone)‚ Andrea explained a number of best practices for the development of Alexa Skills and voice-activated experiences.

Elsewhere‚ Martin drew on the experience of a project his company are currently undertaking in partnership with hedgehog lab‚ to explain the challenges and benefits of offering voice-activated solutions to his team and Northumbrian Water customers.

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Why choose voice?

There is no doubting that the tipping point of adoption is still to be reached. There’s also an argument that true understanding of how businesses can offer voice offerings which are of a genuine value to their end users is lacking‚ too. 

So why would an organisation look to voice now‚ at a time where‚ for example‚ there are only around 30‚000 Alexa Skills available globally – with a lot of those being exclusive to the United States?

Well actually‚ there may be no better time to map out the development of voice-controlled solutions. Comparative to the low availability of voice experiences‚ there were 3‚600‚000 apps available from Google Play alone as of January 30th 2017 (AppBrain) alone. Even accounting for the 14% of apps deemed of ‘low quality’‚ there are over 3.1m apps available to Android users.

Yet where the mobile market is now heavily saturated‚ voice offers market that is budding promisingly. Users no longer see apps as an exciting or exclusive experience in their interaction with brands. In fact‚ they’re becoming more of an expectation. To further illustrate where mobile may be headed‚ there were also 3.1m websites on the worldwide web back in 1999. Today‚ that figure stands at over a billion.

Innovative brands are always looking for ways to impress and excite their audiences. With the novelty of apps perhaps beginning to wear thin‚ most are looking to rising technologies such as AR‚ VR and MR to provide their audiences with outstanding experiences.

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When to choose voice

So when should a company opt to use voice‚ as opposed to another technology like XR‚ to dazzle their audiences? Andrea put it very simply – choose voice when it makes things easier‚ faster and more natural for your audiences.

Let’s break that down a little more using a couple of theoretical examples‚ both internal and external‚ in enterprise.

Imagine a practitioner conducting surgery. With their hands busy‚ surgeons are very much reliant on fellow physicians to communicate information such as medical records‚ goal(s) of the surgery‚ technical details and more. With voice‚ a surgeon could prompt a virtual assistant whenever required – potentially reducing required staffing resource‚ whilst retaining much-needed high standards. As surgeons already use voice to communicate with their colleagues‚ it’d clearly be natural; by removing the need to trawl through records‚ it would likely be faster‚ and by virtue of reliability alone‚ it would certainly be easier.

In the hotel industry meanwhile‚ guests are already used to ‘calling in’ their service requests. With voice assistants available to both visitors and staff‚ phone lines could be removed‚ eradicating barriers in relation to where communication is available. Requests could be relayed to staff who could also use voice assistants‚ for example to assign themselves to jobs‚ ultimately reducing room for human error.

In fact‚ some hotel chains are already making use of smart speakers to offer smart stay experiences. Guests at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas can interact with Alexa to control their curtains‚ lights‚ TV and more via pre-installed Echo devices in each room.

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Catering for voice 

We know why and when – but what about the how? Both Andrea and Martin stressed the importance of walking before running. This implies the importance of identifying a suitable entry point into the market‚ a basic function of your voice-activated solution‚ and to begin by working towards that as opposed to anything grandiose.

As mentioned‚ brands that are currently releasing Skills are generally seen as fairly forward-thinking in nature. Many aim to deliver customer experience above and beyond what their competitors offer. The relative quiet of the marketplace means competition is low‚ and early entry to the market allows something late adopters won’t have – time to perfect things.

Arguably the most important consideration a brand must make in relation to the development of conversational interfaces is around user personas. Most brands will be able to conceptualise a solid product roadmap when dedicating time to it. But without truly understanding end users‚ whether that be customers‚ team members or otherwise‚ success is made much harder to come by.

Once personas are identified‚ it should be much easier to identify and define an entry point. Of course‚ the work doesn’t stop there. Testing prior to development should concentrate on how those personas interact and converse with the proposed solution‚ and in an environment as close to the real thing as possible. This will provide an idea of the user experience you need to work towards delivering.

UX in this field is somewhat unique‚ due to a complete lack of unconscious communication provided. Best practices include being as brief as possible with interactions‚ offering only definitive options to user and varying responses to avoid repetition as much as is possible. However‚ these are very much the tip of a rather hefty iceberg.

In addition to UX considerations‚ brands must identify which microservices they may want to integrate. Elsewhere‚ most will want some kind of proof of value‚ again linking to the importance of a basic entry point to minimise risk. This is where organisations who would prefer to avoid making unnecessary hires often seek partnerships with technology consultancies‚ who are better placed to offer advice on aspects such as the above‚ and carry the expertise to deliver the final product. 

Once delivered‚ the solution can be tested amongst focus groups‚ again minimising risk but also allowing the opportunity to prove the prospective value of the concept. Brands such as Amazon have even recently added beta tester support to Skills. This aids brands in coming to a decision as to the viability of working towards a roadmap constructed at an earlier stage‚ or indeed whether they need to revisit the drawing board and adjust their focus.

In any case it should be noted that‚ whilst we fully support the notion that conversational user interfaces will be a disruptive force in most industries (and have done for years)‚ that voice certainly won’t replace all. Instead it will play complimenting role‚ offering a simple‚ fast and natural means of communication with brands. 

The future of voice

Explosive growth in availability and usage of conversational user interfaces is likely not far away. Those looking to steal a march on their competitors and offer a superior customer experience should look to follow the advice and best practice offered from developers and brands who have already identified painpoints.

If you’d like to explore a partnership with an organisation well aware of the complexities involved in the conceptualisation and development of such solutions‚ why not get in touch