With the surge in voice-controlled devices, conversational interfaces for virtual assistants will go mainstream in 2017. Ask these 5 questions before you start.

2017 looks set to be the Year of Voice, and we couldn’t be more excited.

With 4 million Amazon Echo speakers sold over the 2016 holiday season, and Google reporting a fourfold increase in Google Home users, millions of homes now have a voice interface to the internet. In the smartphone world, Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Voice are enjoying a surge in popularity, with 72% of people using voice search through a personal digital assistant.

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Source: VoiceLabs

Then there’s Ford, which has just announced plans to embed an Alexa interface into some models of vehicle, starting later this year. And who could resist Mayfield Robotics’ super-cute, voice-controlled “home robot” Kuri, who launched at CES this month?

So if there’s one big prediction to make about 2017, it’s that people will finally get over their squeamishness about talking to machines. By the end of the year, consumers ought to be as comfortable asking Alexa for their bank balance as they are with accessing their bank account online.

5 essential questions to ask before getting started with designing for virtual assistants

Voice-based interfaces are taking off so fast that no brand will want to ignore them. But before you get started, there are five critical questions you’ll need to answer.

  1. Is a virtual assistant right for our brand?

Most brands are well aware of the surging popularity of virtual assistants, and many are already experimenting with their APIs. Already, developers have created 7,000 third-party “skills” for Alexa, for example, ranging from EDF’s bill payment service to SkyScanner’s flight search engine.

Those brands that haven’t already dipped a toe in the water will probably want to start experimenting in 2017, either in excitement at the opportunity to engage with customers via a new and evidently very popular channel, or in fear of potentially missing out.

The key thing will be to identify the right context for any new voice-driven service. That means answering questions like: who will be the users of the service, why is this the best interface for it, which task(s) will it enable, and which platforms and devices will be most appropriate. UX research will be key to getting the information to drive the right decisions. (Read more about why UX research is so important.)

  1. What should our brand sound like?

Companies have done a heap of work on honing their brand personality and ensuring a consistent experience between different channels. But most of that work has been applied to visual and text-based interfaces. Comparatively little effort has been spent on defining what the brand sounds like when it speaks to customers.

Yet there’s a huge amount of evidence that people automatically attribute characteristics to a speaking voice, even if it’s not a human one. Put simply, if your brand speaks in a human-sounding voice, your customers will start to assume things about your brand based on that voice persona. Things like the persona’s apparent gender, its accent, the words it uses and the rhythm of its speech will all leave a lasting impression - which may be positive or negative.

So in 2017, brand guardians must start to think deeply about the brand’s voice persona, and what style of speech best embodies the brand values expressed elsewhere in its visual and text-based interfaces. Consistency between written, visual and spoken elements of the brand will be essential to maintaining authenticity and generating customer trust.

  1. Who should be responsible for the voice interface?

From our conversations with Fortune 800 brands, combined with what we’re seeing on forums, it looks as though brands are setting up dedicated teams to focus on new types of conversational interface.

Brands should be careful, however, not to repeat mistakes made at the dawn of web, social and mobile, when dedicated teams working in silos ended up designing experiences that were disconnected - both technologically and in look and feel - from other channels. We know customers want a seamless experience across channels, so these teams should be fully integrated with wider CX activities.

Another important consideration will be the UX skills required by the team. While a lot of UX theory applies across all interfaces, designing for a voice interface requires additional specialist skills that are very different from designing from visual interfaces. If you don’t have these skills in-house, you may well need external help with designing a smart, connected and conversational experience for your virtual assistant channel. We’d love to help.

  1. What’s our brand’s relationship with Alexa / Siri / Cortana?

As more brands develop services for Alexa and other virtual assistants, it will prompt a critical question: Is Alexa the voice of our brand? And if not, what exactly is her relationship to our brand?

It’s critical because the research we conduct for VoxGen clients continually shows that people expect brands to feel consistent and behave in a consistent way. Alexa users expect Alexa to interact with them in a certain way, but they may expect something different of an insurance company or pharmacy.

If Alexa also becomes the voice of an insurance company (or many insurance companies), our research suggests it could sow confusion and mistrust. Importantly, CX teams may also feel a loss of control over the brand experience if Alexa (an external platform) becomes the “voice” of the brand.

For this reason, CX professionals will need to think seriously about what role the virtual assistant plays in the customer experience, and at what point - and how - it should “hand over” to a voice experience that’s created and managed by the brand. This will be a critical design decision, and one we’ll come back to in a future post.

  1. What’s the role of IVR in a world with multiple voice channels?

With all the current hype around virtual assistants, you could be forgiven for thinking that IVR may be on its way out.

But it’s important to remember that not everyone wants to engage with a brand through a voice assistant - at least, not yet. Many customers still pick up the phone: in 2016, for example, the UK’s Institute of Customer Service found that 43% of consumers use the phone to make inquiries.

While virtual assistants will quickly gain ground, IVR will remain an essential customer engagement channel for some time. For brands, that will mean creating a coherent voice UX strategy to ensure that IVR and virtual assistants all deliver a consistent and high-quality customer experience. That will mean understanding and applying principles of great conversational design across all channels where audiences interact with the brand using voice. For many brands, overhauling the existing IVR could be a great start point.

Voice-based interactions will take off in 2017, and the key to success will be designing interfaces and interactions that feel natural and give people the help they need. If you’re looking for an expert partner to help you apply the principles of good conversational design, let’s talk.


Topics: virtual assistants , IVR Design , featured