Digital Assistants, Voice Interfaces, Pocket AI, Oh My!

digital assistants chatbots

The latest in business’s continual search for increasing efficiency and interest – the digital personal assistant. The early but now lagging, Siri, from Apple, assists with answers to questions, opening an app, playing a song or TV show, or my favorite, “take me home” opens the map and gives vocal turn by turn directions to your address from wherever you find yourself. Amazon Alexa sits on your kitchen counter and allows voice commands to learn the weather, play a song, get a sports score, tell a joke, and of course to order items from Amazon. Google Assistant tries to predict your next move and give you the answer before you even ask. Microsoft’s Cortana is their answer to Siri. Even Barbie dolls have  a chatbot added for interactive conversations.

While the artificial intelligence and conversational interfaces of these assistants is impressive it is just in its infancy.

Our computing devices are moving from logic to intuition

The evolution is taking place in three steps – passive, generative, and intuitive.

Passive is exemplified by the assistants mentioned above. When asked a question they respond with logical answers gathered from the web through Wikipedia, mlb.com, imdb.com, Yahoo weather, etc. Certain commands are understood like “play Beatles,” or “What is on my calendar today?”

Generative moves beyond if-this-then-that to actually assisting in generating new solutions based on a number of input criteria. An aircraft panel is designed from human entered requirements to output hundreds of possible options and resulting in the best solution, which turns out to boast twice the strength at half the weight. It is “two heads are better than one” taken to a whole new level!

Finally there is the intuition level. At this stage the computer has learned how to learn and “think” on its own, knowing you at a more personal level. Think HAL in 2001 Space Odyssey.

Advances are being made from the data gathered from use

Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are collecting lots of data from our use of these assistants and attempting to make sense of it to improve these services. The result will be greater abilities and more intensely personal experiences in our interactions with them. The same technology could be used to deliver, say, better care to the elderly. As companies continue developing assistants that sound less mechanical, the line between utility and companionship will continue blurring.

Amazon recently upgraded its speech synthesis markup language tags, which developers use to code more natural verbal patterns into Alexa’s skills, or apps. The new tags allow Alexa to do things like whisper, pause, bleep out expletives, and vary the speed, volume, emphasis, and pitch of its speech. Apple’s rumored answer to Amazon’s Echo promises to take into account the acoustics of the room in its sound output.

This technology is moving to specific business use

“Businesses will have additional things to learn and put into their palette in ways to connect with customers and the use of natural language to do that is a very unique field because it involves elements of narrative and character and story structure with elements of interactive design. Those two things come together to build a computational experience.” – Pocket AI, Financial Times.

This year Bank of America is launching its chatbot within their mobile banking app. The digital assistant named Erica (from the last 5 letters of the company name) will use artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and cognitive messaging to help customers do things like make payments, check balances, save money and pay down debt. She will also direct people to look up their FICO score and check out educational videos and other content. The app moves beyond the ‘question and answer’ basics (passive) to an expanded assistance role. Erica voices personalized advice – “Based on your typical monthly spending, you have an additional $150 you can be putting towards your cash rewards Visa. This can save you up to $300 per year.” This kind of advance has promise to sway customers away from the competition. Using the data gathered from users (Bank of America mobile banking customers performed more than 246 billion payments in the third quarter of 2016, logging into their accounts more than 950 million times) along with other machine learning inputs, the AI they are using learns what queries to program into Erica’s algorithms.

Conclusion

It’s clear that our digital assistants are becoming less like Spock and more like Captain Kirk. But it begs the question, “Do we want a personality to talk to or do we just want a utility to give us information?” The coming years will tell.

randy jeterRandy Jeter
UX Designer

User Experiences That Don’t Suck

Creating an enjoyable user experience (UX) is becoming more and more of an essential key to a product’s success. The old saying is true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. When designing and developing a product, it pays to create each aspect in such a way that your users are not frustrated but instead come away satisfied, if not downright delighted. (The photo illustrations show similar user experience frustrations except occurring in architecture instead of web apps.)

  DON’T CONFUSE THE USER.

Offering too many options at once or a lack of cohesiveness across the web app makes for a confusing experience. Good design is unobtrusive. The last thing a user needs while navigating a complex process is to be presented with inconsistent layouts and navigation. Reduce clutter. Use progressive disclosure to reveal only the fields that are necessary according to the choices made. At Architecting Innovation we want to eliminate or at least minimize unnecessary hassle. A 5% reduction in the customer defection rate can increase profits by 5-95%.

  PUT FORETHOUGHT INTO HOW TO BEST LEAD THE USER.

Make easy visual cues that feel intrinsic and pre-planned rather than patched on later when a problem is discovered. Communicate to the user a feeling that they were expected here and intentional thought was put into making their interaction as hospitable as possible. According to Financial Training Services, 96% of unhappy customers don’t complain, however 91% of those will simply leave and never return.

  PROVIDE PROGRESS INDICATORS.

In long application forms avoid giving users the temptation to drop out and quit by incorporating progress step bars or sequence maps. Organize similar elements into groups. Doing this not only helps with focus but also gives the user the encouragement that a portion has been completed and the end is in sight. Consider offering the option to save and complete later, rather than losing them altogether. Feedback is always useful in letting the user know they have successfully completed an element and where to proceed next.

outofReachAVOID MAKING THE USER FEEL STUPID.

A difficult user experience can make the user feel like it is their fault and maybe they just don’t ‘get’ technology. Keep it within reach. Sometimes we are blinded by our own deep involvement in a project’s development so we only see it our way. Test usability during development with participants who are seeing the product for the first time, then iterate and improve. It takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative one, according to Ruby Newell-Legner’s book, Understanding Customers.

  ANTICIPATE ERRORS.

Good UX design includes considering how we present the user with error messages. Appropriate and detailed (and sometimes even humorous) copy helps the user move forward. Often this is seen on a custom 404 error page. It also applies to form entry issues, for instance password setting. It’s a good practice to display the password character requirements so the user knows the guidelines upfront rather than having to do trial and error. Also think about what idiosyncrasies will be encountered when accessing on various devices. At Architecting Innovation we think through the possible errors that might be encountered and then craft a response or solution to help the user get back on track.

   PROVIDE REAL-TIME FEEDBACK AND VALIDATION.

Completing a long form can be daunting enough without an app preventing you from moving ahead and not showing why. Through visual indications of successful or unsuccessful validated fields, the user knows exactly what may have been inadvertently missed. This avoids the wasted time of hunting for the problem and becoming frustrated. These are just a few Best Practices we incorporate at Architecting Innovation when developing your product. Experience has taught us that a little extra attention to the details in user experience can improve your product, thus increasing your customer attraction and retention.