Three UX design challenges that need to be tackled to establish smart speaker technology.

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Zachary Owen alexa, amazon, voice recognition...

2016 signalled the beginning of a monumental shift in the world of UX with the growth of voice interaction technology in the form of Amazon Echo and Google Home.

This technology has been in development for a long time with the first tentative steps having been made with Apple’s Siri mobile assistant. Voice command on phones has been around for a while but the public have been slow to fully adopt such features into their day-to-day life.

Amazon and Google are seeking to change that with the development and release of fully voice controlled personal assistants. Such a leap forward fundamentally challenges the way in which we perceive our relationship with technology as we begin to interact with devices as if they were human. This introduces a vast new challenge for UX designers as they must map out the first steps of a breakthrough which will redefine the role that technology may play in our lives.

The arrival of such technology presents problems for the industry as initial success rates may not be an indicator of whether of whether it becomes a mainstay in the market, you only have to look at the expectation vs reality of Google Glass to realise just how hard the market can be to predict. 

However, the signs with voice recognition do appear to be positive with many people arguing that it is the biggest shakeup in the way we interact with technology since the arrival of the touchscreen. As voice control continues to gain momentum and reduce the primacy of the visual interface, it is important to consider what will be the biggest challenges facing UX designers as they attempt to build a platform that is increasingly able to mimic human interaction.

1. Breaking down resistance to change 

It is widely acknowledged that the general public still do not feel totally comfortable when it comes to having a conversation with a computer. One of the main reasons for this is that there is a wide margin for error within an interaction, with current technology only being able to offer a limited number of responses. A poll carried out Creative Strategies found that only 6% of the owners of voice controlled gadgets felt comfortable using the technology in a public space.

If Amazon is to realise its ambition of having Alexa become a key part of every office space, they have a long way to go with regards to breaking down the sense of taboo. Marcus Turner of Enola Labs stated in an interview with Forbes that “people are very resistant to change. Some don’t believe that, but change management is difficult for many people”.

It will be an enormous challenge for UX designers to create an experience whereby a machine is able to imitate human interaction, speech patterns and improve the quality of the response given to such an extent that it will make people more willing to communicate with it.

2. Translating a visual shopping experience into audio 

One of the key integrated feature with Amazon Echo has been the ability to purchase items with the device through voice control. This has proved to be a massively difficult task as shopping whether in a store or online has always been a primarily visual experience. Transferring transactions to a non-visual and voice controlled platform is particularly challenging as it requires the user to have absolute confidence in the competence of the computer to select the correct item.

Perhaps, we can already see Amazon’s doubts in attempting to create a purely audio shopping experience with the release of the Echo Show which features a touch screen, showing that people still maybe do not trust voice control to carry out something as basic as a weekly shop. Building up confidence between the user and the technology in this area will be key to giving such devices are far more commercial angle that the wider business community will be more willing to invest in and exploit.

3. Adding personality

One of the most complicated areas of innovation with regards to voice controlled AI has been the ability to give devices such as Echo and Google Home somewhat of a personality that will provide a more interactive and therefore immersive experience. The current range of commands for these devices is incredibly limited due to the technology being in its infancy but there is a desire across the sector to develop these devices into proper personal assistants that are capable of carrying out even the most unexpected of requests.

It is fair to say that this is where Google has a huge advantage due to its almost unlimited pool of information that a company like Amazon or Apple does not have access to. This could set the barriers of entry to the market incredibly high as vast resources and data sets are required in order to create a highly functioning AI system of this type.

The ability for a machine to surprise a user with its response is key to creating an immersive experience. Marcus Turner argues that so far we have lived in a way in which we have had to learn to interact with technology. The time has now arrived for technology to learn how to interact with us and the ability to implement a user experience that is able to somewhat mimic a personality will be key to leading the way in the market.

Final thoughts

It is increasingly looking like the future of technology will be dominated by devices that are hands free and voice controlled (shown by Amazon’s desire to dominate the mobile market with the technology behind Alexa). Such a future presents a vast challenge to UX designers as they attempt to map out a user experience for a technology which should have limitless possibilities as AI continues to improve. Companies must adapt to the growing prevalence of digital personal assistants as they look to integrate themselves within these systems in a similar way to which the market for apps on both iOS and Android grew substantially with spread of such devices.

Companies must explore ways in which they can integrate themselves with a technology that continues to seem so abstract in its current form.  The challenge is immense as devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home fundamentally shift our understanding of what it to interact with a computer but done correctly there is the possibility of a more immersive and efficient experience than ever before. It is a moment in which UX will come to the fore as experience begins to take on a more obviously important role than the simplicity of the aesthetic.