Lately, there is incredible buzz around voice-driven technology and experiences. And, much like with the explosion of apps that happened with the rise of smartphones, companies and brands are trying to figure out how to take advantage and how they can engage their customers in this emerging space. For those that are starting to take the plunge, a common challenge has surfaced—how to best approach designing the user experience.

The problem is that voice, and the larger bucket of modern experiences that leverage conversational interfaces (chatbots are another great example) cannot simply rely on traditional approaches to user experience design. We’ve perfected the art of designing for the screen, be it desktop or mobile. All of our websites and apps rely on information architecture, visual design and hierarchy, eye-tracking, and clicking (or tapping). With voice, little of these aspects apply. Instead, you need to “design” for an experience that is essentially a series of back and forth messages.

One company that is boldly moving into this space - and sharing the development process along the way - is the BBC. Their R&D division has an ongoing project called Talking With Machines, that is exploring the possibilities of voice-driven tech, specifically as it relates to creating more dynamic and interactive programming. They also want to develop design and content creation standards for these interfaces.

In a recent blog post, Prototyping for Voice, Henry Cooke of the R&D division describes some of their work to develop a new prototyping approach for designing a Voice User Interface. In the article, he shares a five step process that the BBC is using for its prototyping. It has some similarities to designing for screen, but there are some major differences and additional considerations. For one, they place a big emphasis on thinking through the possibilities of the setting that the user might be in when they are engaged with the experience. Even more so than mobile, voice is an untethered experience that could be taking place in a myriad of social situation and with a varying level of attention.

Role play is also a much bigger component of the process. First, they develop modular scripts (he refers to them as “sticky scripts” because they build them on multi-colored post-its) that contain all of the elements that a voice experience might have. That includes anything said by the user, the machine, a character, or a sound effect. They then role-play these scripts out, with each element given to a different person to perform (yes, someone gets to be the sound effects!). Ideally, they will try to make these “Blind” role playing sessions, where the person hat is representing the user is behind some sort of barrier so that they cannot be influenced by any expressions or gestures from the other actors.

From the “sticky script” and role play exercises, they move into developing an actual written script of the experience and (surprisingly) storyboards and animatics. While this may seem counter intuitive for an audio-centric experience, Henry explains that it helps them further think through the context of the setting, and ultimately makes it easier to socialize outside of their group. Eventually they move into an actual software prototype, and test in that format.

Henry concludes the post by noting that “this prototyping methodology is itself a a prototype.” They continue to learn, refine, and have what sounds like a lot of fun in the process! This piece was part 1 of a 2 part ‘share’ from the BBC and goes into much more process detail. You can check it out here.

Why this matters:

As mentioned at the start of this post, voice experiences (and conversational experiences in general) are forcing creators to rethink the UX processes and tool sets that they have come to rely on. Much like it was for apps, It will be important for healthcare brands to find their space in this new frontier and to develop their own tools and processes that will take into account both the realities of regulatory restrictions and the true needs of patients. As we navigate forward, it is refreshing that pioneers like the BBC are opening up and sharing their experiences for the benefit of the community at large. Hopefully we can start to learn from these first-movers and carve out our own relevant (and useful) space.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Giermek