Voice User Interface: the future is in voice search

Voice User Interface (abbreviated as VUI) refers to interfaces that enable vocal interaction between humans and devices.

A Voice User Interface can be any object, as long as it is capable of recognizing what the person addressing it is saying and consequently responding intelligently.

If some aspects still seem a bit strange to the general public, we cannot overlook that more and more companies are launching products based on the Voice User Experience.

The term has been chosen specifically because it is not about creating a simple interaction between a product and a customer, but rather reproducing a true system of experiences that, like any valid User Experience, can evoke emotions in the user.

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What is a Voice User Interface?

A Voice User Interface, or Vocal Interface, is therefore a device capable of establishing interaction with a human being.

This interaction unfolds in two distinct moments, both necessary to give the user a complete User Experience (UX), voice recognition and voice synthesis.

What is Voice Recognition?

In this first process, the device must be able to understand what the user is saying and therefore implement real Voice Recognition. This ability is otherwise known as ASR (Automatic Speech Recognition).

Depending on what they can identify verbally, they are classified based on whether they can:

  • recognize individual isolated words or complete meaningful sentences;
  • recognize the voice of any individual or only of the single person who configured them;
  • understand any type of question or only requests circumscribed to a specific context.

What is Voice Synthesis?

In this second phase of the process, namely Voice Synthesis, the device must be able to respond coherently to the user.

This is commonly known as TTS (Text to Speech), which is the conversion of written text into an artificial voice produced by a computer.

To achieve such a result, the following techniques are used:

  • articulatory synthesis systems: capable of reproducing the functioning of the vocal apparatus;
  • formant synthesis: managing the acoustic parameters handled by the artificial signal by these particular mathematical filters;
  • fragment synthesis: acoustic fragments taken from the natural voice are used to compose messages. Once extracted, these fragments are stored in a database, then selected as needed, and finally reassembled to create a sound that exactly corresponds to the written letters.

When was the Voice User Interface born?

Despite the phenomenon of the Voice User Interface exploding only in recent years, its origins date back several decades.

More precisely, the first mention dates back to 1952 when, at the infamous Bell Labs in New Jersey, “The Audrey” came to light, a primitive speech recognition system that could pick up individual and very few words, mostly uttered by a single user, and provided basic outputs.

In the subsequent decades, research progressed in both expanding the recognized vocabulary and, more importantly, shifting from the recognition of individual words to that of “continuous speech,” without having to pause between individual words.

This led to the birth of the first independent speaker systems in the 1990s. The widespread adoption of Voice User Interface began in the early 2000s with the systems of Interactive Voice Response (IVR).

This is a system capable of providing information to a human caller by interacting via a telephone keypad, giving the customer the necessary information (e.g., opening hours, cost of a service, product specifications), and relieving the workload of telephone operators.

Today, we find ourselves in what could be defined as the second major era of IVRs.

Why use Voice Search?

As part of a complete User Experience from a vocal perspective, a fundamental aspect to analyze, especially in the context of current and future trends, is Vocal Search, to which users are becoming increasingly accustomed.

A human asks a question to the relevant voice interface, which is capable of processing the response with phrases that mimic natural language.

The importance of Vocal Search is demonstrated by its integration into numerous devices, such as smartphones, cars, and home assistants, which we will specifically discuss below.

Let’s now focus on understanding why using voice search is so convenient and usable, that is, simple, and intuitive, and what the drawbacks might be.

What are the advantages of Voice Search?

The Advantages of resorting to the use of Voice Search are numerous and can be summarized as follows:

  • Allows for hands-free operation: in a multitasking society like ours, where technology is seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, there is often a need to use our devices while engaged in other activities. For example, while slicing something in the kitchen, how convenient is it to ask Alexa to remind you when you need to take the roast out of the oven in half an hour? Or, while driving, how safe – and road-compliant – is it to ask your car to call and notify you when you’ll be home?
  • Speed: in addition to multitasking, ours is a society of extreme speed, and saving a few seconds is considered invaluable. Speaking is much faster than typing, especially for those accustomed to keyboard input. This aspect can be particularly interesting not only in private life but especially in a professional context, especially for users who write numerous texts daily and can thus lighten their workload.
  • Always at hand: the devices we use for voice search are always with us, so we don’t have to go hunting for them, gaining in terms of time and usability. Just think of your Siri while in front of the TV, the interface set up in your car while driving, and your smartphone practically wherever you are.
  • Intuitiveness: while not everyone can express what’s in their head in writing, almost everyone can do so verbally, making voice search a very simple and intuitive way to operate for anyone.

What are the disadvantages of Voice Search?

Like any phenomenon, the Voice User Interface not only offers advantages but also disadvantages.

Let’s analyze the most common ones:

  • Insufficient bandwidth: in large cities, difficulties in accessing a fast network, capable of supporting the internet on smartphones, are less relevant. However, in more isolated areas, this issue can be more significant.
  • Noisy environments: if we are not in a perfectly isolated room, the voice system may pick up noises or voices different from ours, making it difficult to understand the request and, consequently, process the response. This can happen both outdoors and indoors, for example, in the increasingly popular co-working spaces.
  • Lack of Privacy: many times, we entrust to online searches those questions we don’t dare to ask other human beings because they touch on our most sensitive areas, such as sexuality, health, and personal relationships, and we even delete written searches from our history. Imagine asking certain embarrassing questions out loud! Therefore, the context in which certain voice searches, particularly private ones, are made is crucial.
  • Lack of habit and discomfort: even if all precautions regarding privacy are taken, many users are still not accustomed to addressing a voice interface and may feel uncomfortable, perhaps feeling a bit strange talking to an electronic device rather than another human being.

disadvantages of voice search

How does Voice User Interface Affect Web Marketing?

A phenomenon of such broad and growing scope, like that of the Voice User Interface, can only generate repercussions on the way of conducting Web Marketing and the digital professions connected to it.

VUI and Copywriting

Imagine performing a voice search in one of the situations that we may have seen in the previous paragraphs, you will typically be engaged in other activities and need a quick and prompt response to satisfy the specific need you are expressing at that particular moment.

In most cases, it will be a practical need, such as finding an open bar nearby in the late hour while you are out, and the voice interface will try to provide you with an equally quick and practical answer, avoiding the need to navigate a website.

Here are some considerations if you are the Copywriter of a website that aims to be the answer to that voice search:

  • Write rich, detailed content with detailed information. This way, intelligent agents may make your articles appear in instant answers, thus increasing your page’s CTR.
  • In voice search, users typically use more words and construct longer and less precise sentences compared to written searches. Prepare your content to capture these voice requests.
  • Build content that focuses not so much on the individual keyword but on the entire semantic field through which it is assumed the user will make their voice search.

 

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VUI and Local Search

According to Google Trends, over the last three years, there has been an interesting growth in searches for “near me.” People are increasingly using search engines to find local businesses, making them just a click away.

Typically, those conducting such searches are highly interested in quickly finding the service provider because they have an immediate need to fulfill – it’s not just curiosity but a genuine urgent need.

Being easily discoverable is crucial for a local business because the user is in a phase of the sales process very close to the point of purchase.

Therefore, if you manage the digital channels of a local business, it’s essential to pay attention to the voice optimization of a website.

growth in local search

VUI and SEO

Chatmeter has coined a new term, in the realm of Voice User Interface, it makes more sense to talk not so much about SEO but about the brand-new VEO, meaning Voice Engine Optimization.

This is an innovative activity that optimizes digital assets to increase the chances of capturing traffic from voice search results.

For some, the Voice Search phenomenon surpasses the concept of the traditional SERP (Search Engine Results Page) in favor of the brand-new VERSO (Vocal Engine Result Search Output).

While in a classic search, with a SERP of ten results, we are willing to delve into the topic and browse through all the results on the first page of Google, we have seen that in voice search, we need a quick, concise, and fast response, and most likely, we won’t go beyond listening to the first three results.

Appearing on the podium of this voice search is, therefore, more than fundamental, as being there gives us a greater chance of capturing a customer very close to making a purchase, who in many cases may not have even visited our website.

Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an increasingly relevant technology that, thanks to the use of advanced technologies, analysis of big data, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence.

It involves the connection to the Internet of any physical object, with implications that until recently were considered unthinkable.

In particular, IoT refers to any system of physical devices – such as light bulbs, thermostats, shipping labels, and medical devices – that receive and send data over wireless networks, without any manual intervention, thanks to the integration of data processing devices and sensors.

Imagine being a certain distance from home, heading towards it. Without you taking any action, a specially designed thermostat may be able to ensure that you find the optimal temperature inside your home exactly when you arrive.

IoT solutions not only improve existing business systems but also create new ways of interacting with customers within increasingly advanced User Experience.

The main applications of this new frontier mainly concern smart buildings, the biomedical sector, surveillance, smart agrifood, animal husbandry, and especially, in connection with the Voice User Interface theme, the smart home.

Internet of Things and Smart Home

According to the Smart Home research by the Internet of Things Observatory, the value of the smart home market in 2018 was $380,000,000.

A similar trend is driven by voice assistants, which, in addition to generating significant sales volumes, have boosted sales throughout the sector.

At the same time, the level of knowledge and dissemination of such devices in our compatriots’ homes is also growing: a considerable majority of Americans (69%) are familiar with smart homes, while 46% of households currently own at least one smart home device. Beyond smart speakers, security solutions such as door and window sensors are among the most popular smart home products among American homeowners.

According to this research, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play three roles, which can be integrated:

  • It can act inside connected objects, improving their functionality and processing data without the need to go through the cloud;
  • It can further enhance the operation and understanding capabilities of voice assistants;
  • It can become a true governess of our homes.

artificial intelligence roles

Which devices integrate the Voice User Interface?

Today, the Voice User Interface technology sees the following major players:

  • Amazon: Alexa is based on the Bing search engine and is activated simply by naming it. Its name was chosen thinking that the X inside it would be easier to detect. Alexa is becoming an additional family member in many homes! For this reason, Amazon has decided to incorporate it into other household products, such as clocks or microwaves, for a true User Experience based on the Internet of Things.
  • Apple: its Siri relied on Bing for some time, while currently, it relies on Google. Thanks to Artificial Intelligence, Siri can act as a true assistant to the person holding the phone. One of the latest developments at Apple is Home Pod, and now Apple Music and Siri are integrated into all these new systems, providing the user with a complete experience, both inside and outside the home. Apple’s technology excels in adapting to even the noisiest environments, a simple “Hey Siri” is enough for its six microphones to incorporate all the surrounding sounds.
  • Google: in this field too, Google has released one of the most popular products among users, its assistant only needs an “OK Google”, followed by a polite “Good morning” to start giving you all the information you need to start your day. After calling you by name, it will tell you the exact local time, provide you with weather forecasts, list the appointments on your calendar, and wish you a good day by playing the radio news. Your Google Assistant can perform many functions: if you feel like laughing, ask it to tell you a joke or sing you a song! Google has revealed the development of a new feature for the Assistant on Android phones, making it an efficient screen reader. Just say “OK Google, read this page,” and it will do the task. The novelty lies not in the screen reader itself but in the advancement of the technology used. Google has stated that it has improved the Assistant’s ability to analyze sentences and read them with the tone and rhythm most similar to those a human would use when fully immersed in what they are reading. The most incredible feature is that you can ask the assistant to read the text in a language different from the one it is written in, choosing from the available 42 languages.

It is worth noting how these devices are designed not to appear as simple robots. Alexa seems more like a person’s name than a device.

This is intended to give the user a more human perception of their experience. Consequently, it will be perceived as positive and perfectly integrable into their daily life, leading to an increasingly widespread success of the phenomenon.

Do Voice User Interface devices work?

VUI technology has its challenges. The main flaws include irrelevant responses to questions, a lack of basic general knowledge, and non-context-specific answers.

Research is actively addressing these issues, especially in making the interacting device more human-like.

In this regard, Google has introduced the brand-new chatbot Meena, capable of considering over 2.6 billion parameters and having conversations much closer to those of a human.

While waiting to see it in action, we noticed the broader “humanity” of our Assistant when we pointed out that it didn’t understand our request.

Voice User Interface and Predictive Analytics

Through the analyzed devices, it’s evident how people, often unknowingly, come into contact with various brands to obtain information.

Voice User Interface seamlessly intertwines with a topic dear to corporate marketing that of predictive analytics.

What are Predictive Analytics?

Predictive analysis is a strategy that allows leveraging known data, analyzing it, and making predictions about the probability of a specific event occurring.

The analysis of user insights and their future behavior forms the basis for numerous marketing actions.

These analyses enable:

  • Estimating future profits
  • Creating a targeted customer database
  • Planning targeted sales
  • Targeting online advertising
  • Sending targeted marketing campaigns to undecided customers
  • Identifying customer abandonment rates and creating timely recovery strategies

And who can provide the best information about the user, if not the users themselves?

Why is Voice User Interface crucial for Predictive Analytics?

In this historical moment in general, and specifically for the predictive analytics we’re discussing, digital data represents an invaluable asset.

Devices integrating Voice User Interfaces play a crucial role by providing first-hand information on user experiences and guiding the major brands behind them toward the best marketing campaigns.

It all started with Amazon. In 1998, when Amazon was not an e-commerce giant but a startup selling books online, the Recommendation Algorithm was created to suggest to readers titles relevant to their interests, all still manually.

Today, we have Alexa, on which Amazon is heavily focusing, encouraging developers to enhance the Artificial Intelligence (AI) system, making it more and more powerful.

The better the system can understand user requests, the more it can provide suitable and precise responses, often resulting in the sale of a product or service.

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analysing competitors socials

Voice User Interface and User Experience

Within the evolving discipline of User Experience, which involves the design and anticipation of the overall user experience in the face of a specific digital phenomenon.

The Voice User Interface has and will play an increasingly important role.

What does a VUI Designer do?

The UX Designer, or the User Experience Designer, is a crucial figure responsible for the user’s experience in their interaction with machines, from websites to applications.

Simultaneously, we must consider the phenomenon of conversational architecture, the science that analyzes and organizes all the input we hear and emit vocally through acoustic means.

Voice interfaces become an element of the user experience for mobile applications where the prevailing element is what the human experiences in the use of the Internet of Things (IoT).

In this context, the role of the UX Designer further specializes, resulting in becoming a VUI Designer, a Voice User Interface Designer—a professional who designs the entire vocal conversation between the device and the user.

A VUI Designer, alone or assisted by specialists, performs the following tasks:

  • Identifies the user’s needs.
  • Research to understand the target user.
  • Creates maps, drawings, and prototypes.
  • Write descriptions of the interaction between the user and the device.
  • Identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the technology in play.

 

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Is VUI necessary for every User Experience?

With the increasing importance of Voice Interfaces established, the question arises, is it necessary to incorporate VUI for every device?

The answer is not straightforward. It is essential to consider the phenomenon, but it remains crucial to ask whether VUI, like any other digital phenomenon, makes sense and can bring value to the user within the specific User Experience.

  • For instance, if you are designing a product or service that implies a highly useful element in VUI, such as a device to be operated while driving, incorporating a voice interface will undoubtedly be an added value that enhances usability within the specific User Experience.
  • On the other hand, if you are designing something that will face insurmountable disadvantages of VUI, it is advisable not to include it in your device. For example, if your service will be used in a sensitive location like a hospital or a public office where everyone can hear, the emotional side of the User Experience would undoubtedly be compromised.

Conclusion

The latest trend in product and service design revolves around the voice user interface. This technology extends beyond simple voice search or utilizing the services of a voice assistant.

The potential for integrating voice control into both digital and physical designs is vast. UI/UX professionals need to familiarize themselves with emerging trends in voice user interface design to enhance their designs significantly.

The preceding discussion provides an excellent starting point. We explored the fundamental concept of VUI design, emphasizing its operational mechanism and the essential components needed for designing voice-enabled devices.

The examples mentioned earlier can also serve as a source of inspiration for aspiring designers, highlighting specific areas where VUI design can propel UI/UX design to the next level.

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