The State of Voice UI in 2019

I spent last week at VOICE Summit, soaking in all that is happening in voice UI. Use cases for voice, new products coming out, and the latest technology dominated the stage. It was overwhelming, and incredible.

Here are just a few of my many takeaways – and a few recommendations for where to learn more:

  • Voice UI is a fledgling industry
  • One of the key uses for voice is still accessibility
  • The UX of voice has a ways to go

Voice UI is just getting started

What strikes me is just how nascent our work in voice really is. For each talk about improving on the market, there were several talks simply identifying the basics of a voice app.

One of my co-panelists brought up a challenge of using Alexa skills and other voice “apps”: primarily, that you can’t just use them. You need to request them to be opened, and speak to Alexa as well as the skill.

In the example the panelist gave, imagine using instagram on your phone. You pick up your phone, open instagram, and engage with instagram. You are no longer interacting with the phone. Imagine instead having to remember constantly that you’re on Android or iPhone or Samsung, instead of just using Instagram. That’s where we stand today with voice.

Accessibility is a Primary Use

I saw plenty of examples of voice UI (as well as conversational UI), ranging from a Russell Westbrook chatbot to voice-activated healthcare resources. Although they cut across industries, the most useful voice UI comes into play in two arenas.

First, there are voice UIs that supplement mobile or desktop experiences. These mimic a typical screenreader experience for people who can’t see the screen. Second, there are voice UIs in cars – a situation where people can’t use their hands. Both of these are types of accessibility.

In other words, while voice UI is often promoted as “brand new”, the main value it provides is a long-needed one: better, more accessible experiences.

Voice UI needs UX

My panel at VOICE Summit was titled “Refining UX research to create compelling, contextual voice interface experiences”. Yet many people asked us questions I would expect at a UX beginner’s session. Rather than asking about voice specifics, people wanted to know:

  • Is research necessary?
  • How do I convince my boss to fund research?
  • How can I get people to talk if they’re not forthcoming?
  • What tools are available for research?

Voice UI is an exciting technology. Unfortunately, that means many people are jumping into the technology without paying enough attention to the use cases, the voice, and the overall experience.

Where Do We Go?

If there’s one thing I learned from VOICE Summit, it’s how far we can take Voice UI. Yes, there are a lot of fun toys we can make. And yes, we still need to figure out how (and why) people might download Skills and apps.

But more importantly? We have the technology to improve upon existing experiences. We have a new tool in the toolbox. Voice UI may not take over the world. Perhaps instead, it’s here to help us improve accessibility and incorporate where we need it.

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