During my commute, I hear all kinds of conversations and voices—everything from verbal disputes about seats to more mundane chit-chat. This is because the most human medium for interaction is voice. If we think of voice as a UI, it’s different from other UIs because the way we use our voice is, by nature, rooted in basic human interaction. Much like how I’m able to hear conversations on the train, when we interact with Voice UIs (VUIs) we’re not only engaging with a device that can interpret our words, but we involve the people around us—whether voluntary or involuntary—who can hear and understand what we’re saying and can interpret the tone and subtleties of what we’re saying.
When it comes to using VUIs in public, I still get side-eyed using Siri with other people around, especially on a crowded train. This is likely because VUIs have, almost suddenly, made very private interactions like adding things to your calendar, scheduling reminders, and generally interacting with your iPhone, public and in the open. While that might not seem like a big deal, especially when strangers—like me—can hear the conversation you’re having with your friend on the train, it just feels different.
Because VUIs are often called the most “efficient” UI—a designation often used to defend their legitimacy—the technology’s advancement is often tied to the quantification of that efficiency. These attempts at tying the time-savings a VUI offers to its viability seem wrong to me. If we’re only validating VUIs by the number of phone taps or screen clicks it can save users, it’s possible that the technology may never reach its fullest potential or find ubiquity in our lives.
If we aren’t thinking about how our use of VUIs affects the space around us and the people who share it with us, we aren’t thinking hard enough.
Our voices, first and foremost, are used to engage in human interpersonal relationships with our families, friends, and coworkers. What we share in these moments is much more than just words, but also emotion and nuanced expression.
With that in mind, VUIs should be designed in a way that preserves and enhances human elements of voice instead of suppressing them for the sake of efficient navigation structures.
Why should families care?
Children rely on their parents and caregivers as their guide to how they view the world around them. As adults, we may take our seemingly small and mundane interactions for granted, but children depend on them to model how they navigate the real world with real people in real conversation. In order for these values to take hold, they need to be delivered face-to-face, specifically by their parents or caregivers, through the meaningful use of language and expression.
Take story time for example in this Times article by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo:
“When you read with toddlers, they take it all in: vocabulary and language structure, numbers and math concepts, colors, shapes, animals, opposites, manners and all kinds of useful information about how the world works. What’s more, when you read out loud, your toddler connects books with the familiar, beloved sound of your voice — and the physical closeness that reading together brings.”
As VUIs proliferate, we need to take care that they don’t replace these interactions. A VUI product should never stand in for human, voice-to-voice interaction, however, it can add to it.
It’s crucial to keep this relationship in mind while figuring out how to design products and experiences for parents and children. As designers, we need to focus on developing a strong basis for genuine moments of active bonding, rather than creating something that would put parents in the back seat during their child’s development; a consequence of many of the VUI childcare products currently available on the market.
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