I want you to share a piece of information. Anything. There’s only one catch: You have to do it using only your voice.
Pretty easy, right? Thank millions of years of evolution (and a unique amino acid order in a specific gene) for its silent help.
Now, imagine I placed you in front of a computer and said, “convey information to this system, receive additional information in response, then ask it to perform an action, all while using only your voice.” You’d offer me an exasperated look. Because you’ve done this before. And it’s…not fun. Voice assistants improve every day, yet they’re still a ways off from equaling a simple person-to-person exchange.
Part of that is due to the complexity of computer systems, plus the depth of information they can access, while adding the struggle of context. Asking a coworker about “the game” incorporates prior knowledge of the person, their activities, their preferences, and much more. You’re thinking it was a professional sports event. Nope. They’re really into Muggle quidditch. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
Computers are getting frighteningly good at context (see constant stream of, “I know what you did last summer…and will do for the next 5 summers” demonstrations from large tech firms). Yet the user interaction still leaves much to be desired. As I write this post, I’m typing on a keyboard into a section of screen, surrounded by a lot of tappable (iPad) spots which do everything from change how the text looks to switch to another notebook (I’m in Evernote). At its core, what am I trying to do here? Convey information to you. If we were standing face-to-face, it’d be stupid easy. No “user interfaces” (UI) needed to take in my thoughts, process them, format what’s written, and so much more. I mean, really. Think about all the little steps that have to occur for me to get my thoughts to your brain. It’s not simple at all. That we manage to communicate at all is amazing (though, we seem to be struggling with it lately).
The easiest and most direct way to communicate is with voice. That’s why Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have enormous potential, and are so vocally (see what I did there?) critiqued when they fail. We expect an app to crash. A browser to freeze. Yet when Siri misses one word of our dictated sentence, we’re all, “this tech is such garbage…YOU KNOW NOTHING, JON SNOW!” Because our voice is part of us, and it’s pretty reliable, until you’re in front of an important crowd, then it just shuts off like the computer giving you those low battery warnings. Barring that, our voice accomplishes its task much of the time.
The idea of interacting with tech using only our voice is called Zero UI. And it’s a goal of most tech firms. It’s also really hard, because computers haven’t had millions of years to learn how to do it best. We’re trying to teach them to teach themselves in less than 0.0001% of the time it took us. Imagine the potential, though. It eliminates the need to learn specific steps for any computer-assisted task. You just say it. Think of the person who struggles to find the icon for the web browser. Or looks at modern tech and recoils, dreading the learning curve. Zero UI makes them part of all improvements, and they can reap the benefits as much as a total geek like me.
Think of your entire digital ecosystem. I’m certain it isn’t Zero UI, and that’s ok. The technology isn’t there yet. In the meantime, how can you reduce what a user has to do to accomplish their goal, while minimizing any learning curves? Remember, a learning curve can be as simple as knowing that the icons on the bottom of the phone screen in your app actually represent different sections. Or, that the three lines on the top left mean it’s a “hamburger menu” (which, after becoming the norm, is going away again) with more sections within?
When designing websites, phone systems, mobile platforms, and more, I’ve always deferred to the tried-and-true method: If you showed it to your grandmother, would she have a basic idea of what to do? I’m not suggesting she’ll start using Alexa to pay her bills (though, being a Zero UI solution, she probably would rather that than the app), only, did you design something simple enough to explain simply?
Alexa, help close us out. Sing a song about paper airplanes. (Seriously, ask her!)