With the rise of voice services like Amazon Alexa, voice is quickly becoming a user interface that appeals to customers of all ages. And as one of the most natural forms of interaction, voice enables everyone to interact with technology in a conversational and human-centered way.
When building voice-first interactions, you can’t simply add voice to your app and call it a voice experience; you have to reimagine the entire experience from a voice-first perspective. Designing for voice is different from designing for screens, so developers looking to build for voice can start by embracing a set of design principles that are unique to voice-first interactions.
Here are four design patterns to keep in mind.
1. Be adaptable: Let users speak in their own words
When building experiences for mobile or the web, you present a singular UI to all users. You, pick things like text, icons, controls, and layout. Then users leverage their brain to make sense of the UI you’ve built and take the appropriate action. Take the “OK” button as an example. When you build for a voice UI, the OK function still exists, but it is called an intent (or what user wants to accomplish). But the “OK” intent is spoken and there’s no “OK” button for users to see to guide them.
Voice-first UIs can still provide clues and guidelines for the user. For example, it may share a list of things users can say to complete a task. In a graphical UI, the experience can feel limiting or predestined. One of the powerful characteristics of voice is its conversational nature. With voice, technology is exposed to human tendencies such as emotions, personality, and variety. This means that a voice-first UI needs to account for the many paths that a user may go down to reach the same destination.
2. Be personal: Individualize your entire interaction
It’s important to create personal experiences for users, no matter the form factor. But this looks different from screen-based interactions to voice. For example, on the web or mobile, you might have a single UI that dynamically surfaces personal content such as music preferences. In voice interactions, in addition to personal content, the interaction itself must be personalized. This is because a singular interaction for all users, even with dynamic content, will feel robotic and sterile rather than authentic and approachable. Voice-first interactions should be predictable, yet varied and delightful.
3. Be available: Collapse your menus; make all options top-level
A graphical information architecture effectively sets the customer’s path. The menus set the hierarchy, surfacing the most important buckets as top-level navigation and nesting the less important items within those menus. On the screen, pixels are the scarcity, and this constraint makes hierarchical menus mandatory; not every item can live at the top level. More importantly, presenting too many options at once adds a cognitive load on the user.
While menus add depth to GUIs, they introduce friction to voice-first UIs. Voice interactions should instead offer their experience at the top level—without the need to learn its information architecture.
4. Be relatable: Talk with them, not at them
A good graphical UI is easy to understand and use. It’s also consistent, enabling the user to build habit-forming interactions to complete a task. It’s straight-forward, but also limiting in what it can offer because it is designed to help users do a specific set of things.
A good voice-first UI is fluid because conversations are fluid. For example, if the user says, “I’d like to get a gigantic dog,” the voice UI might respond with, “I have several large dog breeds in mind. Would you prefer more of a family dog or guard dog?” That response indicates implicit confirmation that “gigantic” was understood. The response also moves the conversation forward with a question that helps the user narrow down the choices. In other words, instead of talking at users the same way each time, whether they understand or not, voice-first UIs talk with them and conversationally carry the interaction forward.
Build for voice, the UI of the future
For a deeper dive into each of these voice-first design patterns, download the complete guide on How to Shift from Screen-First to Voice-First Design.