Tag Archives: Spoken Dialogue Management

My baby, DialogCONNECTION, is 11!

4 Dec

This week, my company, DialogCONNECTION Limited, turned 11 years old! 🎉 🥂 😁

It feels like yesterday, when in December 2008 I registered it with Companies House and became Company Director (with multiple hats).

My very first client project was for the NHS Business Authority on their EHIC Helpline (which hopefully will survive the Brexit negotiations). Back then, whenever I was telling anyone what my company does (VUI Design for Speech IVRs), I was greeted by blank stares of confusion or incomprehension. It did feel a bit lonely at times!

Many more clients and thousands of long hours, long days and working weekends since, here we are in December 2019 and I suddenly find myself surrounded by VUI Designers and Voice Strategists who have now seen the potential and inescapable nature of speech interfaces and have followed on my footsteps. I feel vindicated, especially since I started in Voice back in 1996 with my Post-Doc in Spoken Dialogue Management at the University of Erlangen! 😎 (Yet another thing I’m hugely grateful to the EU for!)

We started with Voice-First VUI Design back in 1996, well before Samsung’s BIXBY (2017), Google’s ASSISTANT (2016), Amazon’s ALEXA (2014), Apple’s SIRI (2010) and even before the world started using GOOGLE for internet searches (1998)!

http://dialogconnection.com/who-designs-for-you.html

It’s quite frustrating when I realise that many of these newcomers have never heard of an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system before, but they will eventually learn. 🤓 In the past 25 years it was the developers who insisted could design conversational interfaces without any (Computational) Linguistics, Natural Language Processing (NLP) or Speech Recognition (ASR) background and didn’t need, therefore, a VUI Designer. And we were an allegedly superfluous luxury and rarity in those times. In the past couple of years it’s the shiny Marketing people, who make a living from their language mastery, and the edgy GUI Designers, who excell in visual design and think they can design voice interfaces too, but still know nothing about NLP or ASR.

What they don’t know is that, by modifying, for instance, just the wording of what your system says (prompt tuning), you can achieve dramatically better speech recognition and NLU accuracy, because the user is covertly “guided” to say what we expect (and have covered in the grammar). The same holds for tuned grammars (for out-of-vocabulary words), word pronunciations (for local and foreign accents), tuned VUI designs (for error recovery strategies) and tuned ASR engine parameters (for timeouts and barge-ins). It’s all about knowing how the ASR software and our human brain language software works.

Excited to see what the next decade is going to bring for DialogCONNECTION and the next quarter of a century for Voice! Stay tuned!

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: http://www.careers.manchester.ac.uk/media/media,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! 😀