Emerging Technologies and Markets, User Experience
3 things to consider when design UX for AI-powered virtual assistants

Last month here on our blog, we focused on chatbotshow to conduct incredible user research for them and then use that to create a joyous (not frustrating!) user experience. One thing that kept coming up in our discussions about the potential of chatbots was the need for them to incorporate AI.

That’s why we decided to focus on artificial intelligence for the rest of April on the Snap Out blog. We want to open up a conversation about how we can utilise user research to create AI products that people want, need and will love.

With our discussions about chatbots still ringing in our ears, it seemed only right to kick off this mini series talking about AI-powered voice assistants.

Hey Siri, why is a great user experience so important when it comes to virtual assistants?

For any product or service to succeed, it needs an incredible user experience. However, this is particularly true in the case of virtual assistants.

Related article: What Does Good UX Look Like in 2019?

As Raluca Budiu and Page Laubheimer point out, “The holy grail of usability is to build an interface that requires zero interaction cost: being able to fulfil users’ needs without having them do anything. While interface design is still far from reading people’s minds, intelligent assistants such as Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri are one step in that direction.” (Source)

Good UX for virtual assistants is crucial in making interactions with AI technology as effortless as possible. And less effort with more payoff can only be a good thing in the realm of voice assistants.

Alexa, tell me the things to consider when designing the UX for AI-powered virtual assistants?

With the importance of brilliant UX and effortlessness of communication in mind, it’s important to know the key things to consider when it comes to designing a virtual assistant that is needed, wanted and that will generate joy for its user.

And, no, it isn’t as simple as just creating an assistant that can tell jokes!

Balancing human and machine

AI-powered voice assistants feel like they walk a fine line between “inanimate object” and “intelligent being”, meaning that the UX considerations are entirely different from other digital products.

Corbet Fawcett sums it up perfectly:

“Most of us use a range of personal devices, and our relationship to them has always been one of human to tool. Our phones, tablets and computers act as direct interfaces between us and the world, making them an extension of “I.” I shop online. I search Wikipedia. I text friends. But when it comes to smart speakers that changes. We interact with them by speaking to their virtual assistants (Alexa or Google or Siri), and having the assistant do things for you.

These assistants change the nature of design in fascinating ways. They have gender. They have names. They refer to themselves as “I”. They even have a touch of personality.” (Source)

Thanks to AI, good UX no longer means simply creating a product that serves the user effectively and easily (although, of course, this is still very necessary), but it also means creating a product that is like the user.

Whilst using a virtual assistant may require initial learning, for example the command to get the product to “wake up”, the rest should be relatively intuitive. The experience should be as much like talking to, well, a real-life assistant, as possible.

This means that UX designers need to consider “human” things like conversational flow, that the AI can “understand” different accents and consistency of tone. Simultaneously, however, good UX for a virtual assistant also means embracing the “machine” side of the product too, in that it removes the need for human exertion as much as possible.

Great experiences with virtual assistants are the result of perfecting this delicate balance between technology that feels exciting and futuristic, and that that feels human and familiar.

Think about trust before anything else

Not only are virtual assistants a relatively new phenomenon, making a lot of us hesitant to trust them in the first place, but they can hold a lot of our personal information. They may have access to our calendars, location, the contact info for all of our close friends and family and, perhaps most worryingly, access to that embarrassing noughties playlist that you put on whilst you’re washing up!

In an age where we’re all increasingly worried about how our data is used, virtual assistants must generate trust with the user in order to be adopted. As such, “Designers need to solve the friction between getting the info the AI needs to know and the info users are willing to provide.” (Elaine LeeDesign Makes AI Smarter)

In order to build trust for any product or service utilising AI, Vladimir Shapirosuggests the following tenants: Showing competence, being authentic and honest and being reliable.

Your user is not an expert

As I said, virtual assistants and AI are new territory, especially to us ordinary folk.

As Tom Woodel aptly explains, experts design for experts: “The problem arises from these very smart people failing to see how us mere mortals could not find their designs usable and so creating “Swiss army knife software” that does everything badly and nothing well.” (Source).

That’s why it is so key to remember when creating AI products, including voice assistants, that you are designing for the average person, not an expert!

Okay Google, tell me how to get to know the “average people” that will be using my product.

User research is the key to learning about your user to create a product that they will love and that will generate more profit for you.

When it comes to creating AI technology that will be adopted, starting with the user in mind through effective user research is essential: “Focus on the user benefit as a starting point to figure out what the AI needs to learn. Relevant user value can draw people in. Immediate gratification can keep people interested. Apparent improvement or sense of moving forward can engage people in the feedback loop, gaining the data AI needs to get smarter and be relevant.” (Elaine Lee, source)

Within the next few weeks we will put out a blog post on what we’ve learnt about conducting the user research for AI assistants specifically. Until then, head over to our YouTube channel, Snap Out TV, to start learning about user research today.

Related: Snap Out’s user research services.

The Snap Out Team