Ever watched a film based on a book you loved (especially a childhood favourite) and been disappointed? Felt like it wasn’t how you imagined it? When you read the book the world you imagined was personal to you, it was anything you wanted it to be. To others it looked different, but that didn’t matter, it could be as many things as could be imagined. When it was put into a visual format it made it less — it became only one thing.
What if technology could be more like the book than the film. Different things to different people — as wide and rich and varied as you can imagine. That’s what voice interfaces bring to technology — something new, something uncluttered with someone else’s vision of what it should look like.
For a website to offer many, many options it would have to have a lot going on. Maybe you try to nest them, hiding them deep, making me seek them out. Maybe you create a mega-menu — everything I could ever possibly want, but not everything I would ever actually use.
People say that the lack of visuals on a voice interface gives them a discovery problem — you can’t see what your choices are. Let’s consider it from a different angle. Let’s call them undistracting. They don’t demand my attention, distract me from the purpose I interacted with them in the first place. Voice interfaces wait for me to interact with them (at least for now). They don’t get impatient and start making suggestions, or playing ads or asking me to sign up.
They sit there, invisible, waiting to serve. The things that my voice does in my house is different than the things your voice will do in yours. Not because we have access to different commands (though we may) but because how I think about and imagine those commands is different than you. They follow me around my house. They involve no work on my part. Going to bed conjures up images in my mind of lights going off downstairs, heat adjusting, a warm bedtime light colour on my bedside lamp. A single speech act changes the world, makes that happen.
Each different interaction is personalised and contextualised. Nothing else exists for those moments. Moment to moment the interface I’m imagining may look very different — commands for playing music rather than controlling my thermostat. The key thing is that neither of them interfere with each other. I don’t have a GUI full of disparate things, nor do I have to navigate between multiple screens to get to what I want. There are never too many or too few options ‘onscreen’. If how I picture lights working is ‘on or off’ then that is what exists for me. If I prefer to be able to set them to ‘sunset yellow 33.7% brightness’ then in my mind I have a whole array of options. All the commands are there all the time, but my attention is only ever needed for the ones I want.
Voice interfaces do need to get better at helping you find new functionality. But only if you request that help. I’m tired of websites trying to get me to buy something unnecessary like ‘artisan gingerbread handmade by monks’ while I’m doing something completely unrelated. I don’t care if ‘people like me’ bought them. And while we may not be unique as we’d like to believe, we aren’t all the same. Let me ask for suggestions, directions. Let me decide what I think I need. Let me keep my experience uncluttered, clean, just want I want — not what someone else thinks I should want.
The interface most personalised to you is the one you imagine — and with voice interfaces that’s exactly what you get. It’s not the world that marketers want, but it’s the one humans need.
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