Joining the VUI conversation: The challenges and benefits of voice user interfaces for marketers
Voice user interface (VUI) development has been opened up to brands, people and developers vying for a share of voice in this new, noisy marketplace by both Amazon and Google who have created free ‘skill’ or ‘action’ building platforms for their market-leading personal voice assistants. Although this accessible technology is exciting, it is still in the early stages of adoption and presents a steep learning curve - for both brands and customers. In this world, everyone’s a beginner.
VUI as the solution for a genuine customer problem
While it’s tempting to use VUI as a platform for a brand’s personality and tone of voice to run free, marketers need to champion clarity and purpose above all else. There are some important considerations marketers should take on board to overcome the unique challenges posed by delivering a positive brand experience in a voice environment - from development practicalities, voice and language design to the all-important user experience.
First, marketers need to consider the desire of their customers to engage in conversation with a brand via VUI apps. The vast majority of successful and well used voice services are swift, transactional and compliment other channels. Users of VUI devices don’t want long, drawn-out conversations with Alexa or whichever assistant they’re talking to. The interactions they appreciate most are short, clear and direct. They have a goal they wish to achieve - tomorrow’s weather, the latest podcast episode, something to cook tonight – and providing the easiest, most direct route to that piece of content will create the best customer experience.
Marketers entering into this little-known territory will find many aspects of voice interfaces that are quite different to graphical user interfaces (GUI), posing some interesting challenges. Although marketers are used to creating engaging, content-rich websites, this approach doesn’t apply to voice devices. If VUI users want more content, they’ll ask. In fact, pushing lots of related content or allowing your assistant to go on long, conversational monologues will only frustrate your customer.
If you are trying to use VUI for any other reason than helping your customer solve a problem you know they have, then quit while you’re ahead and save your development budget. As with all technology, trying to find the problem for a solution won’t help your customer, but will damage your brand experience.
Collaboration is key
Voice-driven interactions require a seismic shift in approach. The traditional waterfall working model - where each department completes their contribution to a project before the next department starts working - just doesn’t work for VUI currently.
True collaboration is required to work on VUI marketing projects, with the user experience, copy and development people all overcoming the challenges together. Creating user journeys isn’t possible without language input; likewise, creative ideation isn’t possible without understanding the practicalities of development. Working alongside each other from the outset makes the project more efficient, more cost-effective and more enjoyable for the team. Ultimately, this approach will achieve the marketing goal of creating a better brand experience for the customer.
Finding your brand’s voice
In a world entirely driven by language and sound, it’s tempting for marketers to try to create a brand conversation, mimicking real dialogue and allowing both participants to shape the conversation. Whilst it is vital to maintain a consistent brand personality with other customer touchpoints, in a VUI world, common real-life speech patterns, such as open questions, cause a myriad of problems - for the developer, customer journeys become unpredictable and unhelpful, while users become overwhelmed and often stop responding at all. Instead, simple, jargon-free language should guide brand scripts, with pops of personality and creativity saved for occasional utterances where there’s no chance a customer might misinterpret what you’re saying.
As great as the possibilities of VUI are, the limitations are even greater. It’s incredibly difficult to synthesise natural dialogue, for example. The devices have set listening times, affecting the kind of interactions you can create. Moreover, the ability of VUI to mimic the intonation of speech – known as speech synthesis ability – is also relatively limited. Although in theory SSML (Speech Synthesis Mark-up Language) gives VUI developers control over pitch, pace and emphasis, the results are often more miss than hit. Instead, to achieve natural-sounding speech, we have found using an unnatural amount of punctuation works best, experimenting with different symbols to create just the right rhythm.
The need to convey information by sound alone also dictates a different UX technique. It’s normal to display a list of available options in web design but trying to replicate this on VUI presents a whole new challenge. Unlike in GUI, the VUI user is heavily reliant on their short-term memory, so options have to be limited and delivered in a way doesn’t overwhelm the listener. With wordy options, it’s recommended to reduce list items to no more than three. Content-heavy brands, such as newspapers, need to be particularly careful how they surface lists of content.
And even when you’ve presented a list of options carefully crafted for the listener, the challenges for marketers don’t stop there. With VUI, the user has complete autonomy and freedom, introducing unpredictability that’s hard for brands to deal with. In web design, if you present the user with three choices – click here, here, or here – they’re limited to those options, or can choose to navigate off the page all together. In VUI, even if you present the user with a finite set of options – do you want A or B? – the user can still say whatever they like.
If you present a customer with two options - meat or vegetarian – and they say “soup”, how do you deal with that? One way would be to repeat the options, emphasising that there are only two choices; but that could be patronising to the user. Alternatively, you could try interpreting the user’s response as best you can. But be aware, you want to avoid an error spiral.
Instead, marketers need to dedicate time to considering the best way to handle errors. What are your responses when the user says something unexpected? What personality do you want to convey? No matter how thoroughly you map your customer journeys, you need to plan for the unforeseen.
With voice already becoming mainstream and set to be incorporated into many more devices and interfaces it’s an area ripe for experimentation and a great opportunity to extend your brand experience into a new and exciting world. However, it is still new. To embrace it, ensure you understand its intricacies - play with competitor services, research the platform, use a voice specific design stack, and engage a multidisciplinary team. Most importantly experiment and test with real users. It is easy to forget that your brand will be speaking in a customer’s home where tolerance and patience are short, and boredom sets in quickly. Bring an extraordinary brand experience into your customers home. Remember, less is more, so focus on the key benefits you know customers want and say a lot about your brand with as little as possible.
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