Stop typing, start talking
Machine learning and AI are fundamentally changing the way we interact with our computers. Perhaps the best interface will be no interface. Let’s just talk.
“It’s part of the human condition to think that if we struggle to use something, we assume that the problem resides with us,” said Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief design officer. The best type of user interfaces are the simplest ones, the ones that work intuitively and doesn’t require much analysis on our parts, but adapt to our ever-changing needs. This insight uncovers a hidden reality of using computers: we have to adapt to their behavior. We learn their foibles, they don’t learn ours. But perhaps we’re getting closer to the ideal user experience – no interface at all. Chatbots and voice are still at their very beginning. But everything points towards that we will be talking a lot more in the future.
“We are going from talking through messaging apps to chatting to machines”
Computing paradigms change every 10 to 15 years; they’re typically defined by how they operate with the outside world – meaning we have to change with them. The first computers purely operated via command-line (or text) input. They required linguistic skills of a precision that the Academie Française would have been proud of. The graphical interface (GUI), pioneered by the Xerox Alto, popularized by the Mac and dominated by Microsoft Windows, took hold in the late 1980s. GUIs were more forgiving visualizing everyday metaphors like files and folders on a color screen. This is the computing most of us know. Multi-touch computing, pioneered by the Apple Iphone, was a third revolution, point and draw with your finger, what could be simpler? The Iphone fundamentally changed the way we interacted with technology, our expectations, because the whole screen became a playing field.
Chat is natural
Smartphones, in turn, paved the way for the rise of messaging apps. We now have countless ways of contacting each other, whether it’s on Imessage, Whatsapp, Messenger, Slack, Skype or Wechat. And since it makes sense for companies to try to talk to us, using the same channels we use to talk to one another – chat and chatbots have received a lot of hype – becoming, you might say, our latest interface. The reasons are clear: chat is natural and we spend a lot of time in chat applications. Turns out chatbots are also ludicrously easy to build. But it also turns out, building a great chatbot is a lot tougher than building a chatbot. If you’ve ever tried chatting with a chatbot you’ll know why; the conversation is dull and repetitive. God forbid you ask an original question only to be met with utter incomprehension.
So, we’re still pretty far from the ultimate interface, but no doubt, things are happening. Today, the technology is converging and leaps made in one field serve another. Natural language processing (NLP) enables chatbots, image recognition enables self-driving cars, voice recognition enables Alexa, Google Home, Siri. Those are all different branches of machine learning and we’re getting better and smarter at it, at an increasingly faster rate. A few companies are now starting to reach that level but we’re still in the early days. Yet, according to experts, by 2020, 85 percent of all customer interactions won’t require human customer service reps; indeed, those interactions will happen over chat, but also over voice.
We are going from talking to one another through messaging apps to chatting to machines. What’s the next step? Eliminate typing, and use your voice. Going back to the point on the importance of keeping user interfaces simple, voice is a big deal. To quote the eponymous book, the best UI is no UI. No design is required if you could simply talk to your device.
Today, voice AI such as Siri or Alexa, are limited by two things: technology and architecture. On the technology front, speech recognition and text recognition still have a lot of room for improvement, especially if your English is somewhat accented. (Fun experiment, ask Siri to “Google Tchaikovsky” for you with a French accent, you’ll get surprising results.) Their architecture is based on general themes, the AI is able to draw context from the user’s request, classify it and answer it accordingly. What it has a hard time doing however, is to follow a conversation, remember pieces of information mentioned three questions back and use it when needed. There’s no dropping birthday gifts hints with Alexa. But thanks to the millions of users that interact with it regularly, the AI is getting plenty of training and gradually getting better.
A voice AI good enough for us to freely chat with would be extremely liberating: no more staring at your screen constantly, just chat with your AI, how cool does that sound? Nevertheless, voice AI raises some really challenging UX problems. How do you teach your users to use an interface which is actually invisible? What will be the standard keywords to which Voice AI will respond to and who will set them?
We know the world is changing
Can Voice ever be good enough to be totally unscripted, feel as seamless as talking to a fellow human? The answer to this question is more a matter of belief, than it is hard science. We cannot anticipate the changes that will happen with the exponential development in tech and what we will be able to do. For now, a “Her”-like society is definitely science fiction.
What is very real, however, is the short-term impact voice and chatbots will have on the way businesses interact with their customers. Indeed, 32 percent of executives say voice is the most widely used AI technology in their business. Six billion connected devices will proactively ask for support by 2018. By the end of 2018, customer digital assistants will recognize customers by face and voice across channels and partners. HSBC has already implemented voice recognition as a secure access to one’s banking details.
We all know that the world is changing and it’s changing faster than ever. Not that long ago we were all going nuts about tactile screens – “it works without buttons!” – and now we live in a time in which soon all homes in developed countries will be equipped with voice AI devices to facilitate and organize our lives. And where businesses will interact with their customers in a way that is barely invented yet.