As innovation brings ever greater capabilities to consumer, commercial, and automotive products, a great User Experience (UX) and intuitive Human Machine Interface (HMI) have never been more valuable. After all, what good is a differentiating feature-set if nobody's willing to figure out how to use them!
Allegedly, our microwave can "smartly" reheat a plate of leftovers to a perfect, consistent temperature all the way through. Yet we usually just press "2" and hope for the best! (More often than not, we either get food that's still cold or we haashahfahshah through the first steaming bites.)
We're living in an age where news, music, trivia, TV-series, books, and even meals are readily available where and when we want them. So regardless of what your product does, it has to do it "on-demand"- as anything less than a streamlined, frictionless interface, will limit market acceptance.
This societal shift in expectations, along with a confluence of tech innovations, has led to the broad adoption of the most intuitive of user interfaces: the human voice. The trouble, however, is that successfully planning and delivering products with a high-quality voice experience is notoriously difficult. Here's what you should know.
Why Voice Interfaces Are So Popular
Voice-enabled devices are quickly becoming commonplace in nearly every region and for every consumer demographic. Whether making cloud-connected or offline products, OEMs need to understand what's driving this demand for voice. If you ask the average consumer what they like about voice, you might get a simple "it's just easier"; but a deeper look reveals a few fundamentals behind Voice's growing popularity.
The Bandwidth Problem. "With your phone, you can answer any question, video conference with anyone anywhere ... The only constraint is input/output," said Elon Musk, co-founder of Neuralink, a startup exploring the possibility of a direct Machine/Brain Interface (MBI). "On a phone, you have two thumbs tapping away - we have a bandwidth problem."
While it may not be as instantaneous as a hardwired "MBI," products with a voice-based UI are simply a generation ahead of products with traditional, touch interfaces.
The Translation Problem. In many ways, machines have an "interface language" all their own. We learn their peculiarities and over time are able to fluently do what we want in that language - to the point where, in many cases, "language" even becomes standardized. For example, if you were handed an unfamiliar TV-remote, how long would it take you to figure out how to "turn it up"? (I'll put the over-under at 2 seconds.)
The flip-side to this though, is that users are asked to learn a new language if you're selling a product that's unique, has high complexity, or is broadly capable. To use these devices, they have to figure out how to translate their intent into a series of device interactions.
Here again, largely thanks to innovations in AI & ML powered speech-to-intent engines, voice-based interfaces allow us to completely side-step this translation problem. "Hey microwave, reheat this medium bowl of spaghetti."
Social Shifts. Wondering what time the game's on? Just ask! Ready to resume that series on Netflix? Just say the word! Notice something while making dinner? "Add garlic powder to the shopping list." The convenience of voice is permeating our modern lives.
Many technologies are brought to market but never find purchase in society. Some, like Google Glass (2014) or GM's EV1 electric vehicle (1996), are perhaps ahead of their time - while others, like the Segway, are more a solution in need of a problem. Unlike these, it's safe to say that voice is here to stay.
Speech recognition is now reaching the "plateau of productivity" on the "hype cycle," where voice-based services are now fully integrating into modern life. Beyond the obvious functional benefits, the act of talking to a device has also become an expected, socially normal thing to do.
Presumably, if you're reading this article, you know that next-gen products will need voice control. It's probably also obvious that it's a bad idea to release a product with a BAD voice interface. (Nobody wants "this stupid thing" associated with their brand!) Unfortunately, despite the proliferating number of voice-enabled products, delivering a quality voice experience may be harder than you'd expect.
Unlike some new product features, adding a voice interface requires product architects to make a number of highly-impactful, interconnected design decisions. Development teams don't have it easy either, as integrating microphones in a product introduces another layer of complexity.