Exploring Voice Design: UX Designers Move Beyond the Screen

Alexa, Siri, and others have brought voice interfaces to the masses, but now UX designers need to lead the voice revolution.

by Susse Sønderby Jensen

posted on 06-20-2019

Anybody with internet access and basic web development skills can build a voice-driven user experience today — in fact, there are 80,000 skills for Alexa right now. However, the majority of them aren’t very useful. It takes a seasoned user experience (UX) designer to make that happen.

Free tools like Amazon’s Alexa Skills Kit enable any creative to design voice user interfaces, or VUIs, that tap into the expansive capabilities of Alexa Presentation Language. Meanwhile, more homes have sound-driven devices like the Amazon Echo, creating a huge incentive for designers to add Alexa functionality in any location that adds value.

If you’re a UX designer, think about how this works to your competitive advantage. You know how to build apps and websites. You understand what motivates people to slide, tap, and click. Your design skills give you a huge leg up.

Remember what the first web pages looked like? Terrible organization, ugly fonts, zero command of how people consume digital media. Anybody could string together a few lines of HTML and build a web page. But it took user experience designers to create interactive pages and apps that transformed how people experienced digital media.

Now we’re seeing the democratization of voice experiences, which puts powerful VUI tools in the hands of millions. It will enable waves of innovation because anybody with a problem that voice capability solves can use these tools to design an experience, and the amazing things they dream up from the ground level just might inform the future of voice design.

But even with all this, not every developer can design voice skills that are truly customer-centric. It takes a UX designer with a depth of experience, knowledge, and training to craft compelling voice interactions, especially for the most extreme edge cases and for a variety of users with a range of abilities that can most benefit from voice-based experiences.

Alexa, Siri, and other voice platforms are getting smarter every day. Moreover, APIs allow voice commands in places you would never imagine — not just phones and tablets, but tools, factories, retail stores, and any device where hands-free service makes sense. Should your stove be voice-controlled? What about your automatic garage door?

This is the core of democratization of voice design — it’s limited only by the human imagination.

Crafting better voice experiences

Many voice development tools are free to download, including Adobe XD. You can teach yourself the basics of voice design and start creating vocal sequences in hours or days rather than months or years, as it might have taken a few years ago.

As you venture into voice design, you have to think deeply about the differences between listening and looking. Moreover, VUIs have new terminology and workflows to master. You have to create sample dialogs, nurture engagement, conquer biases, and build empathy.

These are a few best practices for thinking beyond the screen and designing a human-centered voice experience:

Start with a sample dialog: This is the base unit of VUI — a simple user flow that outlines the back and forth between the user and the voice interface. UX experts like to call it a happy path. Everything happens in a sequence, whether you’re designing for screen or device. You’ll guide users through the flow by giving them clear options and setting expectations up front.

Talk to your voice prototype: Written words or phrases sound different when spoken. Always talk to your voice prototype and note how it sounds. You can use voice prototyping tools like Adobe XD to write down a series of statements and have your computer speak them back to you. Make sure they sound natural. Get plenty of user feedback — and iterate to streamline everything.

Take turns: Each conversation in a voice experience is a turn. A turn can be simple, such as asking for the time of day. A multi-turn has many requests and responses, such as asking the user whether they are looking for the Arlington in Virginia or the one in Texas. Think about the different ways people will issue voice commands and zero in on the most likely ones.

Keep it short: Listening uses different comprehension tools than reading. If you give users options, limit them to three or they’ll forget and get frustrated. The options phase also lets you get back on track if users are lost or confused.

Make users feel understood: Novice users need to feel that you understand them. Do that by repeating things back to them. So, your VUI could say, “You’ve chosen the Arlington in Texas. What would you like to do there?” Dial this functionality back for veteran users who don’t need as much guidance.

Learn about utterances: “Utterances” are commands that let users say different words to get the same result. For example, “How do I get to Texas from New York?” “What’s the best way for me to get to Texas from New York?”

Build error cases: No matter how hard you try to keep users from getting lost, they will anyway. Building error cases into your flow will get them back on track. Also, add reminders in your flow that reassures users they can pause and get help if they need it.

Think multimodal: Designing a user flow combining modes like voice and screen opens a new world of possibilities because you can make the best use of both interfaces. Simple search capability is a great fit for screenless devices, while smartphones or tablets require a smooth handoff from voice when users need specific things like directions (Google Maps), or long lists (for example, concerts happening in New York City next month).

It’s time to find your voice

In the fall of 2018, Adobe XD added voice functionality, creating the only prototype platform that integrates the design of VUIs with designs for apps, websites, and other visual presentations. Designers can tell their voice experiences to respond to vocal cues and intuitively integrate them into the user experience. We also created the Voice UI Kit for Alexa to make it easier to design skills for Alexa devices such as the Echo Show and Fire TV.

Thousands of voice experiences have been designed for Alexa and competitors like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Home. APIs allow you to plug these capabilities into just about any experience, application or device where it makes life easier for the user.

It’s a bold new era for UX designers because you finally have the tools, thanks to Adobe XD, to start integrating vocal commands into your visual prototypes and let them talk back to you. Today, you have a huge lead over the masses who are starting to experiment with this niche. Mastering the fundamentals of voice design will help you reach your users in a new way — and elevate your design.

Ready to transform your experience design? Learn more about Adobe XD here.

Topics: Creativity, Design

Products: Creative Cloud