April 10, 2018

How to create meaningful natural-language user interfaces?

Kaisa Koskinen

Business Consultant, Financial Services

I guess many of us have already had some kind of a conversation with a machine. The chat bots have rapidly become a standard solution to handle customer service tasks digitally. For example, over 80 % of private customer service chats are started with a chat bot at Finnish insurance company If. Apple iPhone users have familiarised themselves with Siri, a voice-command personal assistant. You might even have a voice-controlled smart home facilitated by one of the triplets, Apple, Google or Amazon’s smart speaker.

The conversational based, voice-controlled user interfaces are here, so natural and handy to use. Eventually, voice-assisted devices will be everywhere around us.

At the same time as the services incorporating conversational interfaces rapidly find their place in different areas of businesses and industries, the business and user requirements for those interfaces are evolving. The user contexts, where the natural-language user interfaces will be used are going to be more and more personal and sensitive. This means new challenges for us designers as we need to find the best ways to support the dialog between users and machines.

Finding your voice

Think about the future, where digital personal assistants are providing people management advises of their stock portfolios – or diagnoses about their health. What kind of person’s voice would your customer like to hear giving advices when the stock market crashes and his portfolio is about to lose 80 % of the value? Is the person he or she? Is the person friendly? Confident? Sorry for your loss? Cheerful as this is a good time to buy? How about the situation, when your personal health assistant diagnoses you have a cancer? How would you like to have that message? When would you like to have that message? In the morning? In the evening? When a loved one is present? What kind of feeling would you like to hear in your digital assistant’s voice? Or no feeling at all?

As the AI has been developing by giant leaps last few years, it is already possible to code your digital assistant to express its feelings and empathy (for example, Microsoft has launched empathy APIs). Even if some people are against the idea a machine being able to understand and share feelings of a human user, it is evident that someday we will have a conversation with a system and we´re not able to recognise it. Is it good design to leave the user with the impression she was speaking with a real person? Or should we always hint someway the user she is now dealing with a machine?     

What to think of when designing an interface

When designing user interfaces of digital, personal assistants you need to consider all those aspects. Also, you need to understand the specific context where user is when listening to your system. Obviously, you cannot list more than three options at the same time as it is possible with visual user interface. The ear catches much less information than the eye.

First, you decide the system’s personality. Who is the person with whom your user will have the conversation? What is her name? How old is she? Which adjective would describe her personality? Clearly, the personality of the system should be in line of the brand personality of the company or organisation providing the system. After the personality is decided, you design how the system express the personality. What is the tone of the system voice, i.e. what kind of words it uses or how does it speak? How it behaves in different kinds of situations, for example in case of unexpected user input. Finally, you design how the conversation goes. Who starts it, the user or the system? How is it started? How does the system provide choices or options? How do you guide the user to use the system as efficiently as possible? How do you make sure that the conversation does not end up into infinite loop? Could you combine visual elements in the conversation in order to make some tasks easier?

Even if the design of conversational and voice-based user interfaces is much more challenging than designing visual user interfaces, I must say it is also really fun. If you would be interested to hear more do not hesitate to contact me kaisa.koskinen@tieto.com and I can share more about my thoughts and what we are doing to help our customers in this area.

If you would like to read more about how bots can offer the next generation of personal finance management and how these types of solutions can be used please download our whitepaper The Chatbot Revolution

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