VUX: better voice user experience design

Less than a decade ago, the idea of asking an inanimate object to turn the radio on, find a recipe or set a reminder would have seemed dystopian.

Fast forward to today, and it’s very much the norm. As soon as children can speak, they’re just as comfortable commanding Alexa as they are asking their mum or dad for a snack to eat.

So – what technology has helped establish this as a regular fixture in our lives?

Voice user experience (VUX), also known as voice design or voice user interface design, is a relatively new field, but it’s making huge inroads into the daily habits of consumers.

The aim of VUX is to create a natural, flowing conversation between the user and the voice assistant.

What started out as a novelty is fast becoming a must-have feature for all electronic devices among users, because it’s hands-free, enables multi-tasking, fast, flexible, intuitive and accessible.

Cutting through the noise

When designing any website, web application or mobile app, the user experience is a central consideration for any designer. It aims to make a consumer’s journey as smooth as possible, with content that’s easy to access and design that’s intuitive – and this is typically achieved through wireframes.

Voice user experience uses flowcharts to map out potential conversations between the user and the voice application, which is tricky when there are so many variables at play.

It’s important to remember that voice-enabled devices will be used in different contexts than visual-centric devices. For example, using a voice-enabled device in a public space may become problematic as background noise will affect usability, whereas visually-led interfaces wouldn’t have to factor this in.

One clear advantage that voice design has over graphic design is usability. Voice products by nature of their design are more accessible to a broader range of users; people who have visual impairments or can’t use their hands in a certain situation (driving), can search for something effortlessly.

Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are two household names in the digital assistant world, and their popularity is growing by the year. In fact, it’s estimated that 31% of worldwide smartphone users make a voice search at least once a week.

What started out as a novelty is quickly evolving into a necessity for all digital devices.

Enabling interaction between humans and machines

The job of a designer is to create digital products that function well and are visually appealing. What they design should meet the needs and wants of users, thus enhancing the overall user experience.

When you consider 71% of users prefer conducting a search with their voice rather than typing, it’s clear that voice design must be a core consideration. The explosion in popularity of voice interfaces makes this impossible to ignore.

However, when creating a voice interface, designers and developers need to understand the nuances that make conversation natural and flowing. The last thing consumers want is to feel like they’re talking to a robot (even if they are).

A human conversation can take a number of twists and turns, but there are certain measures you can put in place to cater to these variables. Your voice assistant should offer choices, have the function to repeat information, and it should provide help to commonly asked queries or situations.

To do this, you should follow a three step process in VUX design:

  • Research: to solve the problems of users and deliver value, you must observe their needs, motivations and behaviours
  • Competitor analysis: take a look at how your competitors have implemented voice interactions and see what their users find useful and what they find frustrating
  • Testing: consumers expect a conversational tone, so try this out with your team and see if it flows, with one person playing the user and another playing the voice assistant

How is voice design beneficial?

The most obvious benefit of voice user experience design is that it allows users to complete tasks hands-free; they don’t have to look at a screen, worry about typing or spelling, and they can multitask while they do so.

But this only scratches the surface on what advantages a well-designed voice user interface can bring. Here are the main benefits:

Accessibility: ensuring digital products are accessible is essential for users with impairments, but it’s also beneficial for everyone. Voice features are a lifeline for people suffering from blindness, chronic health conditions, dyslexia and many other cognitive disabilities. By making your content accessible to everyone, you can ensure no one is excluded and expand your reach as a business.

Intuitiveness: sometimes certain features can be hard to access for users. Take Gmail for example; users will know there’s an out of office function, but it isn’t immediately clear where this is. By activating a search using their voice, users can cut out the lengthy search process and jump straight to the information they need.

Flexibility: language used by your target market will vary from user to user. One of the greatest benefits of voice user interfaces is that it can be programmed to support a range of different synonyms, so no matter how a user chooses to articulate their request, the user interface can react accordingly.

Speed: if we could all type at the same speed in which we talk, we would get an awful lot more done – so imagine if we could use our voice instead of typing when filling out forms for say, a job application. This would convert what is traditionally a time-consuming and tedious task into something that can be completed easily and efficiently.

Things to consider when using voice design

Despite the notable upsides to using VUX, like any form of technology, there are a number of factors to consider to ensure its implementation is successful.

Businesses also need to weigh up whether or not their offering is compatible with VUX. If your goal is to help better assist users with finding resources in a library setting, then VUX probably isn’t the avenue to go down.

Here are the things to be wary of:

Privacy: wherever the collection of data is involved, there will always be privacy concerns from users. Naturally, users will be cautious about sharing personal information concerning their health or finances with a voice assistant, and they might be worried about personal emails or texts being automatically read once they are received. NatWest are using voice biometrics as an alternative to passwords which can be lost or stolen. They screen incoming calls and compare characteristics like pitch, cadence and accent, to a digital library of voices connected to fraudulent activity against the bank.

User preference: as with any technology, user preference will ultimately determine how widespread adoption is. It’s a given that texting or typing is the norm for most users and they may not want to switch. Also, some users may feel a level of discomfort about speaking out loud to their phone or computer before it becomes common practice. The question is – what kind of user are you working with? Do you know what they prefer and how a voice offering could benefit them?

Public spaces: whether users are working in an open plan office, sitting in a coffee shop or commuting on public transport, can you imagine the havoc that would ensue if everyone in that space was using VUX? Would one user’s request be picked up by another device?

The key to remember here is that a multi-channel journey should be exactly that. Your users have so many options now that you need to have a considered offering across each platform that engages with that type of user. For example, a website might be used to access information, account management is best delivered through an app, while notifications and fun additional brand elements are accessible via a voice skill. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, which is why working with an experienced technical partner is vital when planning a long-term digital roadmap.

Could your business benefit from better voice user experience design?

To keep up with changing user preferences and digital habits, it’s vitally important that designers and developers incorporate voice design into their strategies to improve user experience – and that’s where 6B’s technical expertise can help.

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