Why voice is the future of user interfaces

Voice user interfaces are starting to alter the way we use our phones. Here’s why it might be the next big thing.

Interfaces have come a long way. We began with buttons and toggles. The emergence of touch-screen interfaces changed the way we interacted with our mobile phones. But the advent of voice brings with it the potential to raise the game significantly – for everyone.

Gartner has predicted that in 2019, we can expect 20 percent of user interactions with smartphones to take place via voice user interfaces. Gartner’s annual mobile apps survey conducted every year across the US, the UK, and China shows that an increasing number of users are adopting voice personal assistants (VPAs). Apple’s Siri and Google Now are among the most preferred VPAs on phones. But the nascent trend is expected to become the new normal. This is because technological innovations will make voice interfaces more intuitive. We will also see new features, including integration for business services, and more languages.

So voice user interfaces are expected to radically evolve from their present-day simple functions – setting an alarm, sharing weather data, finding a restaurant on the web – to more complex tasks like retrieving past sales data, paying bills, or even taking dictation to compose a document.

With this potential disruptor on the horizon, let’s examine some specific advantages that make voice the new competitive interface on the block:

The unique advantages of voice-based user experiences 

Levelling the cognitive playing field: The first, most intuitive benefit is that a voice-based user experience levels what we call the “cognitive playing field” because it requires lesser cognitive abilities (reading, thinking, typing) than touch interfaces. So a user can focus on what they need instead of using language and manipulating signs – a quality that, after all, not everyone need be innately good at.

Casting a wider net: Since voice requires simpler cognitive abilities and creates a more seamless, intuitive user flow, it casts a wider net, bringing more users into its fold.

Quicker acclimatisation: Related to the above, the easy, intuitive nature of voice means less user training and, hence, faster acclimatisation. This precludes one of the traditional entry barriers of any new technology: that dreaded learning curve.

Speed: Another big advantage is that when it comes to complex commands, voice can work faster and save a lot of time. A user can simply say “Please raise a bill” and go directly to the payment gateway on an e-commerce site, whereas on a touch screen, that same command might take them through three to four screens.

Sometimes voice works best: There are some situations where voice is probably the best and safest option. Driving is the obvious one where both hands have to be on the wheel. But there are others: cooking, working on a construction site or even when one is wearing gloves - all instances when touch is compromised and when voice makes so much more sense.

Conveying intent and tone: On a touch screen, if you’re unsure about a command but still need to have a response, you have no choice but to type “Okay”. But with voice, you can think out loud and say “Hmm, okay, I’m not sure”, and more intelligent interfaces will detect the ambivalence in your tone and either ask for clarification or give you alternatives.

Tighter security: With the growing importance of cyber security, voice can bring an additional layer of encryption. After all, what can be more unique and inimitable than one’s own voice? A voice-recognised “Yes” should suffice in the place of OTPs and passwords.

More economical: All of the above advantages don’t have to make voice-based user experiences expensive. The good news is that voice interfaces can actually be scaled down to much smaller and cheaper form factors than touch modalities.

Inclusion: With lesser cognitive demands, more intuitive flows and better economies, voice-based interfaces can include many more Indian citizens – especially those from tier-2 and -3 cities – into the burgeoning digital world. Imagine a tier-2 businessman trying to buy a laptop through a mobile phone; he is stuck because he doesn’t intuitively understand the “pinch and expand” action he has to perform on his touch screen.

Or he can’t speak English, he prefers Hindi or Kannada. With voice in regional languages, these behavioural and language hurdles disappear, thus ushering in the next billion users of the internet faster.

So voice-based user experiences can truly democratise digital life and create a whole new wave of digital citizens – something with immense potential for the economy and for societies.

What happens next?

For voice user interfaces to pan out, they need commercialisation and scale. This has some challenges. And rigorous, agile UX can play a role in addressing some of those challenges. There’s also a strong case, in our opinion, for voice to co-exist with touch so each medium plays to its strengths and complements the other.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.) 


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