Design has often been described as a conversation between the designer and the user.
As designers of all kinds we have the distinct privilege to communicate and converse with users to understand their needs to create solutions for them. But the influence of voice assistant technology like Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google home demands a new conversation.
And this new conversation is moving away the traditional one between the user and designer – to a conversation between the user and device, literally.
With an estimated 24.5M Voice-First devices to ship in 2017 the impact of voice on product designers, users and hardware start-ups is happening fast. Five major impacts of voice-first devices we see include:
1: Design around voice-first interfaces
The gap between machine language and human language is shortening. Human-computer interaction has been evolving towards less abstract methods of communication for over 100 years. From morse code, to punch cards, keyboards, gestures and voice commands.
We see a peeling away of visual cues abundant in devices up till now. The result is true aesthetic minimalism – no graphic interface to swipe or buttons to press, just voice. Like the monolith from 2001 A Space Odyssey, featureless, a blank slate that generated curiosity. No one knew what it’s capabilities were – and there’s the anecdote. The removal of screens, touch surfaces and ports transforms an object from a gadget into magic.
Designing for voice-first devices like Amazon Echo. Apple Airpods and Lifepod, a seniors assistant share a similarity with this monolithic language. Users interact with the devices through voice and the fully functionality appears minimal and hidden.
2: Voice driven in-ear wearables
In-ear wearables are going be prominent in the development of voice-first devices. In-ear devices have been around for awhile, but with technological progression a new category is emerging: virtual assistants. Having “someone” in your ear ready to answer requests provides a combined value of both mobility and intuitive use which smartphones have tapped into.
These devices are hands free, allowing the voice command capabilities to be applied on the go, without the added cognitive load of multitasking and distraction of texting. Discretion and intimacy of in-ear products are some of their key benefits. Imagine not having potentially embarrassing searches visible on a screen, or to remind you to take your medication.
There are still a lot of design problems like battery life, form factor, cost and connectivity – but you can bet wireless in-ear wearables will be adopted by the mass market soon.
3: Shifting voice-first device infrastructure
Reducing the number of components – buttons and screens – on a product also reduces its cost. The simplicity of what’s inside some voice-first devices is remarkable. For example, Amazon Echo is based on a relay device that sends your input to a server and then repeats an answer back to you. The costs are transferred from physical components on the product to running the necessary infrastructure of a data center.
This means that as more voice-first devices reach markets, and more consumers start using them, a huge pressure is going to be on these centers to keep up with the added load. Plus, as voice first devices gain mainstream acceptance, home wireless infrastructure will need accommodate the handoff between multiple voice devices without conflict.
4: New Business Models
In 10 years half of all computer interaction will be through voice-command. This trend will lead to many new business models, advertising methods, products and services.
Tide for example has already jumped on board, using Amazon Alexa skills to give users advice on how to remove stains and provide a fast way to reorder products. While hardware, voice-first devices like Lifepod deliver virtual care assistance to seniors and allow family members to check-in remotely.
But the major change will occur in online world of advertising, payment processing and shopping. Voice is ready to disrupt the traditional ‘search and click’ method – allowing users to quickly purchase goods and asks questions from their favorite voice-first device platform.
5: The future [home] is now
The future of voice-first technology will help solidify the smart home as a functioning aspect of everyday life. Smart homes or connected homes, will be improved on with advanced versions of virtual assistants such as Google Home or Amazon Echo. These devices are pushing smart homes to the brink of reality.
For years lighting, plumbing, security and alarm systems have been slowly brought into houses, but only by the owners and one at a time. A voice-first world will create opportunities for full integration – integration between appliances, and between the home and its infrastructure. Even now, there are services such as If This Then That (IFFF) and Node-RED which allow you to link your smart devices together so they can talk to each other. Voice-first tech will unify the smart home into a cohesive unit.