Designing Audio Interfaces: An Experiential Prototype

Voice first products are at the leading edge of technology and product design, making them a highly demanding undertaking for developers, designers and innovators.  Working with leading edge technology can be a risk for design firms, given the limited precedents and poses a challenge to successfully translate the technology into physical products.

Design 1st, a firm with deep expertise in hardware product design was sought out by a US client to develop a voice-first product. The effort resulted in a nine month process of navigating the complexities of this product category. In the end, three physical production level prototypes were designed that took advantage of existing technology embedded in the Amazon Echo, paired with a cloud-based application. This resulted in a device that provides informative feedback and controls the physical environment through other IoT products.

Chris is an Ottawa native, inventor, family man and a Senior Industrial Designer at Design 1st. We sat down with him to discuss his efforts on this successful voice-first project.

joan-highet

Author: Joan Highet

Chris Edwards

Chris, Senior Industrial Designer

Q: What was the timeframe of this project?

A: Originally this was meant to be a short, 1-2 month design sprint, with a deliverable of one prototype. However, our client realigned his objectives from creating just one prototype to three unique ones, turning this into a 9 month project.

Q: How did you go about designing this product, and what were your biggest challenges?

A: There isn’t a lot out there yet that defines how these devices should look, how they should work, what other interfaces – if any – they should have and any prescribed method for getting them to work together with a whole bunch of different applications and IoT products. Early on it was all about experimentation to see what worked best and it requires discipline to fit that highly iterative process into a tightly defined timeline and budget.

One of the toughest aspects of  audio interfaces and smart home devices is that you need to learn a very specific, often complicated setup routine or set of verbal commands.  As this consumer product space is relatively new, there are few standards or common methods and commands. We essentially developed a blueprint and have adopted these experiences into our product development discipline.

Q: What was the end result for this project?

A: We ended up making three prototypes that can be used and interact like a real production model. With the help of Amazon Alexa and her millions of associated ‘Skills’ these units can accomplish anything from finding and playing your favorite song, finding the answer to that question that is on the tip of your tongue or turning on your coffee machine to get you that all important morning cup of Joe – all through voice interaction or through pre-programmed routines setup by the user on any common smartphone or tablet.

Q: What were some of the key benefits Design 1st gave to the success of this project?

A: Design 1st’s expertise with IoT highlights our ability to grow our experience into cutting edge areas with respect to user interface and control of these hardware devices. Voice interface is the new hot thing in consumer products and we were able to not only harness existing, new hardware and software in the Amazon Echo and with Alexa, but were able to help create something entirely new.

Q: What part of this project did you most enjoy?

A: It is an extremely empowering feeling to be able to control your environment with your voice and being on the leading edge of this push in the world of design and engineering is extremely interesting and demanding. It has allowed us not only to keep learning but to take it to the next level and help define how this stuff might best work for users. You don’t often get into a technology area where what you’re developing and experimenting with might define how a whole generation of products might work, so there is definitely a sense of excitement, wonder and above all a feeling of responsibility to get it right. The best part was working with the client to pull this off in such a short period of time.

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