Are conversations the most accessible interface?
There is no denying that chatbots and voice-enabled interfaces are growing in popularity. The rise of this new tech can be narrowed down to many different reasons such as dramatically reducing business costs and increasing productivity both in business and for the general public. One thing that hasn’t become common conversation is the possibilities of voice and conversations being the most accessible interface for people living with a disability. Now is the time to start.
Just like an application or website, User Experience (UX) is just as important when designing a chatbot or voice interface. What does UX entail? It is to consider why, what, who and how a product will be used. Prior to voice interfaces and related platforms, accessibility was an area of usability that was overlooked. This wasn’t done on purpose, of course, It’s just something that isn’t commonly put in front of us.
This is a classic example of “The fable of the blind men and the elephant” – The blind men being design teams. The story goes, a group of blind men walk into a bar… later encountering an elephant. One man grabs the tail, claiming a snake. Another grabs a leg and claiming it a tree and none can see the bigger picture.
This fable is a great analogy that can be applied to UX as a whole. If we imagine each man being a UX team, we can assume they simply don’t know, what they don’t know. But how is this relevant to the accessibility of voice experience (VX) and conversations? Well, voice and conversational interfaces are so new and despite there being hundreds of already existing voice apps and chatbots we still have time as early adopters to begin considering how these platforms may be the most accessibly inclusive interfaces.
Isn’t the internet already accessible?
No, not all of the time. We can’t just slap an alt tag into every image on a website and call it inclusive. In fact, a study in 2011 found that 4.7 million American adults said it was difficult or impossible to use the internet because of a disability. This issue is also being recognised legally, with major brands such as Target, Disney and Netflix experiencing lawsuits for not designing websites that assist the needs of users with a disability. Another study from the UK also found that 80% of TV viewers use closed captioning for reasons other than hearing loss.
From recent research, it’s obvious that there is a large population that struggles to enjoy the benefits that the internet of things can provide. Research also shows that people that don’t suffer from a disability can also benefit from accessibility features.
So wouldn’t making a voice interface be enough?
to be inclusive we need to consider a few elements throughout the design process of a conversation and also know the appropriate platform or use of a conversation for different circumstances.
Something I think all UX designers can admit to is trying to allow the user to achieve something in as little clicks (time) as possible. So why not seriously consider reducing the amount of voice interaction as possible? This is something that can be considered based on each goal of the application – but can greatly enhance the experience for low vision and the majority user base.
Sited users have the ability to interpret 6 syllables per second with an absolute maximum of 10 syllables. Visually impaired and completely blind users can interpret speech at a rate of an astonishing 25 syllables. With this, depending on circumstances, designs may need to consider controls of a speech rate.
Short answers and interruptions.
This should be generally considered as a whole but when considering the above as well as efficiency, interruptions are very important. Don’t force the user to listen to a long message or list of menu items (especially if they face this message or menu every time they use an app). If the user is returning, they most likely know what they are looking for. Satisfy their needs quickly!
Unfortunately, some users will struggle to interact with voice interfaces. There will most likely be integrations with hearing devices in the near future that will allow users that live with hearing difficulties. Until then, what can we do to enhance conversational interactions with a brand? Chatbots. We can 100% copy the interaction of a voice interface into a conversational interface. Let’s not forget, voice interactions aren’t the only mode of communication. Your brand can interact the same (if not more effectively) through a conversational interface.
Make the conversation obvious. Don’t rely on ambiguous language that may result in confusing users. If your conversation requires ambiguous language due to an offering or service, allow for elaboration during the conversation. This would essentially look like two paths, the ability for users that understand the conversation to continue and users to ask for further explanation if needed.
This is definitely a buzz word surrounding conversations and voice interfaces. Carefully consider personality when designing a conversation because sarcasm, technical terms, and abbreviations may confuse some users and result in them losing the context of the end goal. I don’t mean to say “drop personality” – this is very important as it can increase customer retention.
This one is something all designers should be used to. This is something that is assessed on a case-by-case basis but if you have a very specific list of options, place the most used options first. If you have an evenly used list of options, consider placing the important options at the end so that the user doesn’t have to remember an option the whole way through the list.
This is most important for voice interfaces. Users may need time to gather their thoughts before answering a question. Don’t be impatient by telling the user that it doesn’t understand an input before they get a chance to reply.
Understanding broken speech.
Designers and writers need to consider different combinations of saying or replying to a question. Not every user will reply exactly the same way or with the same words. This also goes for people that may not be speaking in their primary language. Allow for an understanding of broken sentences or changes in the way they communicate their answer.
Voice and conversational interfaces are still very new. The same goes for designing experiences behind this new form of interface. If designers put some time into seeing the bigger picture, they will create the most inclusive experience for everyone. Every project is different though, the considerations in this article should be researched based on the experience an application or brand is trying to provide to the user.
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How chatbots are taking over apps
Here’s an experiment: Take out your phone and unlock It to see your homepage. Now check out your apps and count them all. Note how many you actually use day to day…
Chances are these numbers stand pretty far apart and FYI, on average we only use 5–10 apps regularly. This is because our human brains are not great at consuming ‘clutter’ – otherwise known as the mass information out there.
To actually use apps requires us to download or purchase them, enter our details, sign up, sign in, familiarise ourselves with the user interface (UI) and remember it. This fastidious process is off-putting so we are using a handful of them.
Bottom line is we like efficiency and our minds respond best to simplicity.
The simple life of Apps
Since the Apple Store launched in 2008, apps were the predominant interface of smart device interaction. To date more than 100 billion apps have been downloaded from the Apple store alone.
Though interestingly, Jillian D’Onfro contends that only 1,000 of the one million apps in the App Store or Google Play Store have 50,000 or more users. That’s only one-tenth of 1% of all apps. And although we might have lots of apps, (as you discovered when you started reading this) it is said that as many as 50% of people who download an app use it just once. I too am guilty.
The crux of the matter is we are not using technology in the same way we used to. We demand more, faster, and better for the pace at which we use our devices. Remember when we used to actually change our Facebook profile pictures every couple of weeks? The world around us is changing faster than the app stores, and the strive of today’s tech is to make the future a more functional place.
Apps have reached their first-world existential crisis: the economy is so heavily saturated that it cannot offer consumers anything extraordinary anymore and hence cannot grow any further. It’s not that people don’t want to use apps anymore, there’s just too many of them, they take up memory on our devices and simply put, they are not sustainable for our advanced minds to comprehend. However the key take here is that people still want to receive services and information through tech, and now require a different experience.
According to a report by Gartner, 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human by 2020.
“Ever been to Tennessee JARVIS?”
“Creating a flight plan for Tennessee.”
―Tony Stark & JARVIS
Chatbots emerged early in 2016 and in less than 6 months tech giants launched both created their own Chatbots and Bot development platforms. When it comes to changing the tech game you can’t undermine the path Chatbots are paving.
Who knows maybe assistant robots like Tony Stark’s ‘JARVIS’ or ‘Number 7’ from Benchwarmers will actualise. It’s a brave new bot-filled world, equal with new possibilities and new risks.
What exactly is a Chatbot? Well unlike apps, Chatbots communicate in your language and offer solutions like humans can. It’s not human, but an interface generated via code which enables engagement with us via voice or text. It can respond to queries, provide information, and call you by a nickname your real friends and family would refuse. A core mission of the Chatbot is to mimic human to human interaction, minus the awkward “how are you?” “good and you?” “yeah good, and you?” loop.
Jokes aside, Chatbots carve a new innovative territory, hybridising speed, efficiency and personality into tech. Subsequently, Chatbots are taking over apps and it’s no secret that eventually they will be powerful enough to put apps to their death.
Let me explain.
Chatbots are in a way the product of what apps have taught us. The app most people spend half their time on is (surprise surprise) Facebook, and the second and third are Facebook owned. Facebook Messenger is the single app that has evolved to deliver utility, services, games, and commerce directly through its omnipresent UI known as ‘chat’. So to be fair, Chatbots were conceived out of apps evolution. We gotta give them some credit.
‘Chat’ is not a new concept, it’s kinda been around since about the beginning of time. Even the least tech-savvy person can have a good ‘chat’. Ironically we’ve had to journey through the whole app life cycle to discover that the best UI is our natural language. (However technology needed time to evolve to this point too). Today’s ‘chat’ encompasses a world that merges real life with tech, and removes the dreary task of sifting through product listings and lousy search results. Where technology once plainly enabled us to communicate, it is now preaching a new wave of communication.
At a very basic level, our lives revolve around communication with people or businesses. Our preference for direct and simple communication is signified by the globalisation of messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Kik etc. In this messy messaging environment, conversational Chatbots provide a simplified and natural approach to data interaction.
Chatbots have a voice and can talk back to us, so digital experiences can be more meaningful. Conversational interfaces adopting personality is the new user experience. The magic of Chatbots comes alive in crafting experiences through conversations and providing valuable unique understandings.