Voxable Voice Review - Spring 2020

Lauren Golembiewski

It’s clear that the COVD-19 global pandemic is changing the status quo and no one is really sure how things will shake out. I always advocate for staying informed, but in times like these, I think it’s even more important to keep your finger on the pulse of your industry. I compiled some relevant articles and reflections about what I see impacting the voice-first community and conversational technology this spring. 

⛑ Conversational Technology & the Pandemic

No surprise here, but contactless or minimal-contact technology is fairing pretty well in a pandemic. In fact, according to the voicebot.ai article “EXCLUSIVE: A Voice Tech Startup is Gathering Data to Build a Coronavirus Speech Test” researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Voca.ai have created a voice-based COVID-19 test that attempts to identify the novel coronavirus by analyzing speech and cough patterns. 

Many companies and news outlets are leveraging platforms such as Alexa and Google Assistant to provide timely updates to their customers and audience. On March 6, before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the BBC began delivering regular coronavirus updates on Alexa. Alexa also has several new tools to help us all cope during the quarantine.

Unfortunately, companies deploying conversational interfaces are using inconsistent data sources and privacy practices. VentureBeat asked businesses providing chat solutions related to COVID-19 about their information sources, vetting processes, and how they handle personally identifiable information (PII). Kyle Wiggers detailed the findings in “AI Weekly: Coronavirus chatbots use inconsistent data sources and privacy practices.”

🏢 Conversational AI in the Enterprise

In non-pandemic-related news, there have been some recent advancements in natural language processing (NLP). Vox covers the improvements to language modeling in their video “The era of fake writing is upon us.”

Microsoft also announced how they are enhancing automated writing, or natural language generation (NLG), with their model Turing-NLG. Enterprise companies should pay close attention to such announcements and build strategies for how to leverage the improved technology. On the other hand, Microsoft is refocusing Cortana’s enterprise strategy with the Windows 10 update and it remains to be seen if they will allow other businesses to integrate with Cortana. If Microsoft halts third-party integrations, it could dramatically slow the pace of innovation on the platform. 

⚒ Level-Up with Voice Design Resources & Tools

It’s exciting to see how voice resources and tools evolve because their improvements enable conversational designers to build better experiences. In the resources realm, I recommend checking out Deepika Mittal’s post on getting started in VUI design. Mittal’s reading list is a fantastic starting point or a refresher for those interested in conversational design. Similarly, if you want a deeper dive into conversational design principles, read the Google Design blog conversational design collection

With regard to voice design tools, there are new Alexa design system toolkits for the Alexa Presentation Language. AdobeXD also announced support for voice control on Mac OS which means designers can use voice to control their design tools. Personally, I never considered using my voice to design visual and spatial experiences, so I’m curious how useful this will be to XD designers. 

👶 Smart Speaker Experiences for Children

According to the NPR Smart Audio Report, early adopters of smart technology are turning to smart speakers to help reduce screen time. This shift is probably particularly relevant to parents now as kids spend more time at home and are more reliant on screens to do school work and interact with friends.  

In VUI designer Jeremy Wilken’s Project Voice talk, he outlined how designing voice experiences for children poses an interesting challenge considering that children possess different decision-making frameworks and behavior than adults. So, how do designers build voice experiences for children? 

UX Collective compiled research insights and design recommendations related to how children reformulate questions to smart speakers. Beyond the interaction challenges they have with smart speakers, it's also important to consider the ethical implications of building voice experiences for children. How do we prevent our children from surveillance and exposure to inappropriate content? Enter Chatterbox—an open source smart assistant platform built with children and privacy in mind. 


A final note for anyone who’s looking to make sense of the recent advancements in AI, I recommend checking out Amy Webb’s 2020 Tech Trends Report released annually in March. It contextualizes all the trends impacting the world and gives business leaders actionable insights as well as provides a framework for other individuals and organizations to do their own research-driven forecasting. I especially enjoyed Webb’s recent article about coping with uncertainty in business, “How Futurists Cope With Uncertainty.” Despite recent global events, the Tech Trends Report is still a great reference point for business leaders—even if just to remind ourselves of the future’s uncertainty and the necessity of planning for that uncertainty.