Archive | June, 2010

The Loneliness of the long-distance … VUI Designer!

13 Jun

On Friday 11th June, I took part in the “Pathways” event organised annually by the University of Manchester Career Service to support PhD researchers as well as research staff in “making career choices, exploring future plans and discovering the breadth of opportunities available to them“. I was Guest Panellist at 3 different Sessions:

  1. Opportunities for Engineering and Physical Sciences
  2. Working as a Freelancer or Consultant and
  3. Enterprise, Entrepreneurship and Business Start Up

The University of Manchester Logo

As a University of Manchester graduate (well, technically UMIST, I felt compelled to take part in those Question and Answer panels in order to give some insight on how a career can develop: from a Bachelors in English & Linguistics in Greece, to a Masters of Science in Machine Translation and a Doctorate in Automatic Text Summarisation in the UK, to a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Spoken Dialogue Management and a position as a Research Project Manager in Germany, to working in Industry both as a full-time employee and as an external contractor as a Voice User Interface (VUI) Designer in Germany, the UK, Switzerland, the US and further afield. It’s been a fascinating journey for sure! And I probably would never have arrived where I am now, if I hadn’t done those degrees or taken up those jobs in those specific places.

Have a look at the Guest Speaker profiles, including mine (p. 24), here:,172749,en.pdf

Some very inspiring career journeys!

I have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed the whole journey, the projects I have worked on, the people I have met on the way, the different organisational cultures I had the chance to experience. Plus, I wouldn’t change what I do now for the world! I love working as an external contractor and coming in to design speech self-service systems and voice-to-text services from scratch, or optimise existing ones, and the whole development, testing and tuning cycles:

  • writing functional specification documents
  • defining the system persona
  • drawing call flows
  • crafting system messages and coaching voice talents for the recordings
  • writing speech recognition grammars and pronunciations
  • devising and carrying out Wizard-of-Oz tests and Usability tests (including recording test subjects on video and interviewing them afterwards!)
  • transcribing and analysing phone calls
  • writing tuning reports

Everything is a lot of fun! It’s also great to be bringing in the same VUI Design processes and skills in different organisations and projects, and also getting to work at different places in the world at any one time! I love the variety of work and location of work, as well as the flexibility to work anytime and from anywhere! (Yes, working on your laptop – iPad soon – from a beach in the Caribbean is no longer a daydream but a realistic plan! :))

working on a deserted beach in the Caribbean is no longer a daydream!

Okay, it does get lonely. No gossiping in the kitchen during coffee breaks and no Christmas office parties. I still get to have probably as many face-to-face project meetings and conference calls as the average office worker though. We all have to work independently and in isolation, when analysing data or composing a report anyway. Only office workers have also got the hectic running-around of their colleagues and lots of intrusive and loud phone calls they have to unwillingly witness in silence. So my loneliness is a very content one! πŸ˜€

Does Your Customer Know What They are Signing off??

3 Jun

Just back from SpeechTEK Europe 2010, the first SpeechTEK to take place outside of the US, which was great fun. I gave a presentation on “The Eternal Battle Between the VUI Designer and the Customer“, which went down quite well (more on that in my next blog), heard many interesting new ideas about how normal people view normal communication channels to a company or organisation (the Web is prevailing but multimodality and crosschannel communication will be indispensable in a couple of years), heard about new applications of speech and touchtone and any challenges they are facing, and met up with loads of people I know in the field from companies I’ve worked for and cities I have worked in. I have started a few projects and collaborations as a result (again to be announced in my next blog), but for now I would like to share my presentation at SpeechTEK 2007 in New York on Monday 20th August 2007 (how time passes!), entitled: “Does Your Customer Know What They are Signing off?”.

Maria Aretoulaki – SpeechTEK 2007 presentation – opening slide

As it says in the accompanying blurb: “This presentation stresses the importance of incremental and modular descriptions of system functionality for targeted and phased reviews and testing. This strategy ensures clarity, consistency, and maintainability beyond the project lifetime and eliminates the need for changes midproject, thus both managing customer expectations and protecting the service provider from ad-hoc requests.“.

Here is a PDF with the presentation slides:

Maria Aretoulaki – SpeechTEK 2007 presentation : “Does Your Customer Know What They are Signing off?”

You can also get the Powerpoint file from the SpeechTEK site itself at:

The idea is to have a standardised way to document speech application design both in terms of call flow depictions and in terms of functionality description. In addition, 3 different tiers of functionality and call flow representation are proposed, from the more abstract High-Level design (what range of tasks can a system perform?), to the rather detailed Macro-Level (all the user interaction and back-end processes and their interdependencies), to the very detailed Micro-Level which documents every single condition, system prompt and related recognition grammar.

Maria Aretoulaki – 3-tier speech app design representation

The point is that, in every speech project, a number of people with very different backgrounds, roles and expectations are involved, from the Business-minded, to the Techie, to the Usability expert: from Account Managers to the Marketing Strategists, to the Call Centre Managers, the IT Managers, the System Architects, the Programmers, and the VUI Designer themselves (more on these different characters in my next blog with my SpeechTEK 2010 presentation). The 3 different tiers of speech design representation and documentation are ideal in catering for the diverse information needs of those very different groups. The Business and Marketing guys understand better the High-Level representation with the list of things that the system can do in different cases. The Call Centre Managers and some very involved (and worried!) business guys from the side of the customer feel better when they see the Macro-Level detail, because they feel they have more information and therefore more control over what is being designed and implemented. It is also something very concrete to sign off (and therefore difficult to dispute at will later on). The VUI Designer and the System Architect and the various application developers really need the excruciating detail of the Micro-Level: every single condition (including every case where things go wrong) needs to be documented, along with every different prompt that the system will utter (including when it doesn’t recognise or even hear what the caller says), and every speech recognition grammar that is activated every time the system expects a reaction from the caller / user. The inherent modularity and the incremental nature of the design representation means that it can be more easily maintained, more readily modified, and even more straightforwardly adopted and adapted for other speech and multimodal applications in the future. So everybody’s happy πŸ™‚

I gave this presentation when I was Head of Speech Design at Vicorp, although the basic ideas behind it matured during the time I was Senior VUI Designer at Intervoice (now Convergys).


SpeechTEK 2007 was organised by:

Information Today, Inc.
143 Old Marlton Pike
Medford NJ 08055 U.S.A.
Phone 1 (609) 654-6266.