The new UX frontier: Designing voice-controlled virtual assistants

What does UX/UI mean when users are talking to the device instead of staring at a screen?

UX design voice-command chatbots Siri Cortana Amazon Echo Facebook M

I've always been fascinated by User Interface and User Experience design. Architecting the interfaces between humans and machines is critically important – and incredibly difficult. If anything, both of those attributes carry even more weight in the era of mobile devices and smartphones, with their tiny screens and limited inputs.

But that's a walk in the park compared to the new frontier of UX/UI design in the world of chat-based interactions. Virtual assistants like Apple's Siri, Google Now, Microsoft Cortana, Facebook M, and Amazon's Echo are all well-known examples, but they're only the tip of the spear. More specialized versions of this kind of interface are used in everything from voicemail systems to ChatOps apps like Slack.

Think about it. There are no screens or buttons or keys at all, but someone still has to design how the machine will communicate. And all of the requirements for elegance, ease of use, and positive reinforcement still apply.

According to a fascinating piece by John Pavlus in Fast Company last week, so called "conversational interfaces" are "the new hotness in digital product design." He's talking about chatbots, often using text messages running in SMS-like windows, but the principle holds true for auditory chatbots as well. The hard part, Pavlus contends, "is figuring out how the thing is going to behave in a real-time conversation—in other words, its personality. Where does a designer even begin?"

See also: Facebook's virtual assistant M is super cool, but can it scale?

For one thing, the background and skill sets required for chatbot design run more toward writers and performers than graphic artists and traditional designers. That makes sense. You're not creating a look and feel, you're building a personality expressed through words (and maybe someday tone and expressions as well).

Some things carry over from visual UX/UI. You still need to figure out how you want the machine to appear to the user… to establish a personality for it. But you also have to walk a fine line between pretending to be a human being and acknowledging the reality that the user is conversing with a machine.

For instance, apparently, it's essential to include a "kill switch." Humans need a fast, easy way to end the conversation if they don't like how it's playing out.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.