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Speak up: The moment to act on voice UI is now

A customer interaction is, at its core, a conversation between a person and a business. So what happens when you don’t have to leave the room or even pick up a device to initiate that interaction? It becomes an actual conversation. Voice technology is changing these customer interactions, and the change is here to stay.

These new conversations offer many exciting opportunities, but as voice becomes a more widely adopted interface, companies will need to place a greater emphasis on creating a world-class customer experience when building voice-first applications.

The strongest applications of voice user interface (VUI) empower customers to address their needs on their own. VUI can also redefine how people request and find help in challenging moments. When is the last time you called a 1-800 number and didn’t immediately mash the pound or zero buttons to get through to a representative? Why? Not because the prompts are automated, but because they usually ask extraneous information before helping you address your need.

The keys to voice in customer-first design lie in triaging customer need, quickly relaying the right information, and creating a feeling of self-sufficiency. This way, when someone does need to interact with support staff, that staff is highly energized to deliver an effective and efficient conversation.

Before thinking about how to use this new interface, let’s look back on other emergent technologies. Take the adoption curve for the internet as an example, and how quickly it became an adopted platform. Now compare that to the adoption rate for smartphones.

Voice technology adoption

When comparing these adoption curves, you get a sense of the rapid time to adoption of each new technology and how the pace quickens with each new wave of functionality. Voice is the latest off the starting line, and it’s off to such a strong start in part because it's building on the adoption of existing technologies like smartphones.

Given this, companies who remain on the sidelines without a voice-adoption strategy will be left chasing those that do. Voice technology will continue to see a steeper adoption curve than the those of mobile use and mobile purchasing.

In short, if you don’t have voice integrated into your product within the next two years, someone else will introduce a competing product that does.

There won’t be a "light-switch" moment. It’s going to be an evolution. The core of the human experience—the reason we emerged as a civilization—is the ability to tell stories and pass down knowledge. Language elevated humanity. When voice UI can match the pace of human conversation—in question and quick response—you can enable people to attain the answers they’re looking for in a direct fashion. Here are a few things you can do to make sure your foray into voice UI is successful.

Validate that it’s the right technology

The best way to adjust to new technologies is to understand why you’re using it. Tools are only as useful as the value they provide. Each new technology is a conduit for value—if used properly. That means starting with an assessment: Is this the right tool for what we’re trying to accomplish?

For instance, the ability to book and manage travel with voice technology is a clear area of opportunity. Context is important, however.

If it's a frozen tundra outside, asking your voice-enabled digital assistant to book a tropical vacation from the comfort of your couch sounds pretty great. However, if you're on a packed plane full of people trying to schedule your ride home using voice, it doesn't work as well. Voice can’t—and shouldn’t—be thought of as a sole interface, but in the appropriate moments, voice elevates technology and makes it more inclusive.

Consider inclusivity

The demo of Google Duplex gained well-deserved attention because of the way it bridged the uncanny valley in conversation. In one demo, Google simultaneously showed how real and present a voice-augmented and AI-augmented world is, and how it can integrate into our day-to-day lives—while simultaneously highlighting the potential for complexity when making this technology accessible and applicable to all.

It also raised ethical conversations about the need to disclose that the "person" on the other end of the call is actually a machine. Rather than shying away from these tough conversations, Google is taking them head-on. These challenges present a tremendous opportunity for digital product teams to embrace a truly accessible and adaptable interface, one that can be more inclusive and answer the difficult ethical conversations in a way that keeps people at the center of human communication.

Embrace accessibility

I recently spoke with a Forbes writer on how voice offers the potential of incredible advancement in accessibility by providing a new, reliable means of input. This is a topic that deserves a great deal of focus and attention, but at a high level, it has the potential to greatly improve the way people of all abilities interact with technology.

The technology also creates an additional need for affordances in how voice-enabled devices are equipped to respond to varying types of audio input and output. Companies should consider allowing people to control the pacing of the response, the volume of the response, the time given to provide instruction, and the ability to adjust previous instructions as ways to make voice technology more accessible.

In the same way that the laptop keyboard is becoming less and less of a default for interactions (and the mouse, as well), we need to be mindful that these devices and various inputs cannot be left behind. Instead, we can embrace voice as an additional interface in our toolkit: An omni-input, omnichannel future.

Future of adoption

Voice as an interface will continue to influence how we think about customer service and the way technology integrates into our lives. It took close to 50 years for telephones to reach 50 percent of the market, but closer to five years for smartphones. We need to recognize that the shift from voice is underway now, and already shaping our experiences.

We used to look at technology advancements in ten-year windows. Now that window is closer to two years, or even months. That's why it's so important to be thoughtful and inclusive about the way we begin to build a technological future that incorporates voice. We’re setting the foundation for voice today.

Join the conversation

Interested in learning more about voice-first application design and engineering? Join our live webinar and Q&A session Oct. 17, where we'll discuss how organizations can create enhanced customer interactions with voice technology. We'll also review key thoughts from our recent white paper on the topic, "Voice-first application design and engineering: How organizations can design for the voice-first era using a practical engineering approach."