Voice interfaces and audio output will have a greater role to play in creating better user experiences

The role of voice commands and audio in user experience is increasingly becoming something to shout about. One of the notable winners of the UKUX Awards at the end of 2013 was Barclays for their talking ATMs which won in the Best Innovation category.  Used in conjunction with headphones, they were created to improve user experience for blind and partially sighted people as well as people who have difficulty with English.

Elsewhere voice commands and interfaces are quietly finding their way into more areas of our lives and are being integrated as part of the user experience for a growing range of products and services from consoles to cars.

However we are still only just scratching the surface of its potential to create better experiences for users.  This is especially the case as the migration to mobile continues and wearable computers with their limited screen and input options become more widely used.

Not perfect but better

The word error rate of speech recognition software is falling to a level where it’s good enough. The point here is that it doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs to be better than the fiddly alternative of a mobile keyboard for it to be a preferable choice.

Anyone who uses voice input instead of writing long texts by hand knows how much time it saves even if the odd word and bit of grammar is incorrect.  And it might be just me but Apple’s personal assistant Siri seems to have got to a point where I can trust it to do certain tasks and get these right most of the time.

While there are some obvious limitations to using voice in a public setting (like entering credit card details) if used wisely it can offer a neat bridge between the physical and digital environments.

Elementary Watson

There are other perhaps more significant developments on the horizon in the world of natural language user interfaces such as IBM’s Watson.  Having won Jeopardy (a US game show known for it linguistic tricks) in 2011 it is now aiming its talents at the worlds of customer engagement, healthcare and finance.  It is making enormous leaps in understanding natural language to break down the barriers between people and machines.

Although late to the party, I started using audio books in 2013 which as a busy father of 3 young children means I now actually get to read something other than Peppa Pig.  The big win here is that I can do it while having to do other stuff.  Why can’t I do this for other content too?

While podcasts are great they can be a bit of a faff.  Beyond this there are opportunities  for the digital industry to explore how it can use audio content in a more integrated and user friendly way.  If I’m on the go with my hands full then being able to easily listen to an article rather than try to read it would be helpful.

The original augmented reality

Anyone who’s used audio guides knows that while deeply unsexy, these clunky gadgets are the original augmented reality devices.  They have the power to capture our imagination and transform a few shabby looking ruins into a historical epic.

As retail environments evolve into more of a product playground is this something we can employ to build even more theatre into the shopping experience?  Maybe we can all have our own personal shopping assistant.

Businesses and designers who are willing to experiment in this area will be able to create  innovative new customer experiences.  For their audience this is good news as it will enable them to do more, enjoy more of the content they want and maybe even make their world a bit more interesting than it already is.