Tag Archives: Voice Assistant

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!

Towards EU collaboration on Conversational AI, Data & Robotics

22 Nov

I was really interested to read the BDVA – Big Data Value Association‘s and euRobotics‘ recent report on “Strategic Research, Innovation and Deployment Agenda for an AI PPP: A focal point for collaboration on Artificial Intelligence, Data and Robotics“, which you can find here.

Of particular relevance to me was the Section on Physical and Human Action and Interaction (pp. 39-41), which describes the dependencies, challenges and expected outcome of coordinated action on NLP, NLU and multimodal dialogue processing. The associated challenges are:

  • Natural interaction in unstructured contexts, which is the default in the case of voice assistants for instance, as they are expected to hold a conversation on any of a range of different topics and act on them
  • Improved natural language understanding, interaction and dialogue covering all European languages and age ranges, thus shifting the focus from isolated recognition to the interpretation of the semantic and cultural context, and the user intention
  • Development of verbal and non-verbal interaction models for people and machines, underlining the importance of gestures and emotion recognition and generation (and not only in embodied artificial agents)
  • Co-development of technology and regulation to assure safe interaction in safety-critical and unstructured environments, as the only way to assure trust and, hence, widespread citizen and customer adoption
  • The development of confidence measures for interaction and the interpretation of actions, leading to explanable AI and, hence, improved and more reliable decision-making
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You can find the excellent and very comprehensive report here.

Design Voice Assistants as Performers

4 Nov

I recently read a very interesting article in Fast Company, which resonated a lot with me. Entitled “It’s time to rethink voice assistants completely“, it addresses a common obsession with designing voice interfaces that could easily be mistaken for humans.

It undoubtedly seems like a very noble goal, given that humans are at the apex of the communication pyramid among other living beings (let alone inorganic material!). However, the article makes the case, which I fully support, that human-like is not always desirable or even appropriate, especially if it fools you into thinking you are interacting with another human. This is a particularly poignant faux-pas, if the user did indeed believe the dialogue bot, only to be then frustrated by its lack of understanding or the lack of rationale in its response.

As the article suggests, human conversations should, of course, be studied thoroughly, but only be taken as inspiration for VUI and Voice Design, and not as the gold standard of interaction.

In fact, a disruptive idea is put forward, to consider Voice Assistants to be “performers, rather than human-like conversationalists”. That is precisely how you can create and craft more expressive, emotional, engaging and sticky conversational interfaces and the corresponding conversation designs.

UBIQUITOUS VOICE: Essays from the Field now on Kindle!

14 Oct

In 2018, a new book on “Voice First” came out on Amazon and I was proud and deeply honoured, as it includes one of my articles! Now it has come out on Kindle as an e-Book and we are even more excited at the prospect of a much wider reach!

“Ubiquitous Voice: Essays from the Field”: Thoughts, insights and anecdotes on Speech Recognition, Voice User Interfaces, Voice Assistants, Conversational Intelligence, VUI Design, Voice UX issues, solutions, Best practices and visions from the veterans!

I have been part of this effort since its inception, working alongside some of the pioneers in the field who now represent the Market Leaders (GOOGLE, AMAZON, NUANCE, SAMSUNG VIV .. ). Excellent job by our tireless and intrepid Editor, Lisa Falkson!

My contribution “Convenience + Security = Trust: Do you trust your Intelligent Assistant?” is on data privacy concerns and social issues associated with the widespread adoption of voice activation. It is thus platform-, ASR-, vendor- and company-agnostic.

You can get the physical book here and the Kindle version here.

Prepare to be enlightened, guided and inspired!

DESIGN your conversational interface before Coding it!

20 Sep

I just listened to the latest Google Cloud Platform podcast with Google’s own Cathy Pearl and was delighted (and vindicated!) to hear her stress the importance of DESIGNING your conversational interface before CODING it. You really need to think hard about the user needs you’re trying to meet with the interface and the possible dialogue “scripts” that would help you do that. Only then should you bother start coming up with training phrases for your intents or actions. This will save you a lot of headaches, time and, actually, face among your customers too. I’ve seen so many instances myself of developers seeing VUI Design and Voice UX design as an afterthought and then wonder why their conversational interface is not conversational at all or indeed much of an interface to the intended data and services, as it doesn’t always respond appropriately to what the customer wants or even to what they say.

Listen to the enlightening podcast here.

An Amazon Echo in every hotel room?

16 Dec

The Wynn Las Vegas Hotel just announced that it will be installing the Amazon Echo device in every one of its 4,748 guest rooms by Summer 2017. Apparently, hotel guests will be able to use Echo, Amazon’s hands-free voice-controlled speaker, to control room lights, temperature, and drapery, but also some TV functions.

 

CEO Steve Wynn:  “I have never, ever seen anything that was more intuitively dead-on to making a guest experience seamlessly delicious, effortlessly convenient than the ability to talk to your room and say .. ‘Alexa, I’m here, open the curtains, … lower the temperature, … turn on the news.‘ She becomes our butler, at the service of each of our guests”.

 

The announcement does, however, also raise security concerns. The Alexa device is always listening, at least for the “wake word”. This is, of course, necessary for it to work when you actually need it. It needs to know when it is being “addressed” to start recognising what you say and hopefully act on it afterwards. Interestingly, though, according to the Alexa FAQ:

 

When these devices detect the wake word, they stream audio to the cloud, including a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word.

That could get embarrassing or even dangerous, especially if the “wake word” was actually a “false alarm“, i.e. something the guest said to someone else in the room perhaps that sounded like the wake word.

All commands are saved on the device’s History. The question is: Will the hotel automatically wipe the device’s history once a guest has checked out? Or at least before the next guest arrives in the room! Can perhaps every guest have access to their own history of commands, so that they can delete it themselves just before check-out? These are crucial security aspects that the Hotel needs to consider, because it would be a shame for this seamlessly delicious and effortlessly convenient experience to be cut short by paranoid guests switching the Echo off as soon as they enter the room!

User Interface Design is the new black!

14 Dec

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LinkedIn Unveils The Top Skills That Can Get You Hired In 2017

 

Number 5: USER INTERFACE DESIGN!

“User interface design is the new black:

UI Design, which is designing the part of products that people interact with, is increasingly in-demand among employers. It ranked #14 in 2014, #10 last year, and #5 this year (second largest jump on this year’s Global Top Skills of 2016 list). Data has become central to many products, which has created a need for people with user interface design skills who can make those products easy for customers to use.”

 

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Read all about it here.

https://blog.linkedin.com/2016/10/20/top-skills-2016-week-of-learning-linkedin