Conversational interfaces are being hailed as the future of UI and have had a huge uplift in the past year. We caught up with Andrew Miller, Program Director at Aquent Gymnasium and all-round UX/UI expert, to see what’s causing the technology to gain such momentum.
What are conversational interfaces?
Andrew: Conversational interfaces make up a very broad category that is comprised of interfaces where humans can use natural language to interact with technical systems. That language can be spoken, like when you use an Amazon Alexa device, or it can be typed, like when you communicate with a chatbot. If you ever played a text-based adventure game, you've used a conversational interface. If you've ever endured one of those terrible automated phone systems, you've used a conversational interface. You've probably seen conversational interfaces in movies like War Games, 2001: A Space Odyssey or, more recently, Her.
Why is there a big trend for conversational interfaces at the moment?
A: While conversational interfaces aren't all that new, they have certainly received a lot of attention over the past year or two. The recent up-tick in interest is mostly due to significant advances in the fields of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing. These behind-the-scenes improvements have resulted in vastly better performance and accuracy of those systems, which have led to a rapid acceleration of adoption and use. There are about 60 million voice assistant devices in homes in the US alone, and analysts are predicting that by 2020 over half of all online searches will be done by voice.
While most people use voice assistants for simple tasks like setting timers or checking the weather, many are actually shopping with them. In fact, Amazon reported a threefold increase in voice orders over the last festive shopping season. What's really exciting about conversational interfaces is that they can exist anywhere. Mobile apps, websites and smart speakers are really just the tip of the iceberg. Just as businesses are seeing the opportunities in conversational interaction, this rapidly growing field also represents a unique opportunity for designers.
What are the applications for companies?
A: There are so many applications for conversational interfaces, from commerce to customer support. The challenge isn't finding an application for conversational interfaces, it's identifying customer pain points that might best be addressed with a conversational interaction. In most cases, a conversational interface is added as an additional means of interacting with a system, and right now you're seeing a lot of interesting experimentation going on. For example, KLM Airlines' Facebook Messenger chatbot lets you find flights by having a text chat with an AI Assistant. You can obviously still search for flights using their traditional interface, but the chat experience is definitely worth checking out.
There are countless opportunities for adding voice interfaces to existing devices and applications, really any scenario where a user is unable to look at a graphical display or use their hands to interact with a service. Both Amazon and Google have made it relatively simple to add voice interactions to their respective assistant platforms, allowing companies to test the waters without too much additional investment.
Which teams would work on conversational interfaces?
A: These projects generally require a concerted effort from both UX design and development teams. Conversational design is both similar and distinct from UX design as we know it and, as a relatively emerging field, there aren't many formalised or established definitions for the roles. While this makes it quite difficult for Hiring Managers, it represents a rare opportunity for Designers who want to get into this field. Managers at Google and Amazon have said that the best Conversational Designers have a mix of skills, spanning the humanities and sciences (including linguistics, neuroscience, and psychology), and that when hiring they tend to look for designers with broad skillsets and diverse backgrounds.
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