What every designer can learn from Alexa

4 min read
Will Fanguy
  •  Dec 27, 2017
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The past few years have been full of new and creative user interfaces. Between augmented reality, chatbots, and voice-driven virtual assistants, designers are exploring new possibilities every day. These technologies are the future of interaction, so “getting it right” can seem like a daunting task.

But have no fear! The challenges facing designers today are not new problems. They are old problems being presented in new ways. New technologies don’t replace the old. They stack and combine to change the user experience. Don’t believe me? Like venture capitalist Benedict Evans said, “If you think voice UIs are the future, verbally describe around everything you see and touch on your phone today.”

Related: This is how Amazon’s Alexa hooks you

These “new” UX design obstacles can be solved by approaching them as if they were the same issues we’ve always faced. Here are 4 ways that designing for these new and exciting interfaces are just like the UX and product design work you’ve always done.

1. Every interaction has a goal in mind

Whether you’re asking Siri, opening an app, or interacting with a chatbot in Facebook Messenger, every interaction with a digital product begins with an end goal in mind.

Digital product design must be goal-oriented and goal driven.Twitter Logo Knowing how to incorporate user personas and user journeys is key to the work we do. What does your user intend to accomplish when they interact with your chatbot? How can you make it evident from the outset that there’s a clear and easy path to get there?

2. The user experience should feel natural

Once you’ve determined your users’ goals and the paths they’ll need to follow to get there, start shaving away the parts that create friction. The user experience should feel natural.

Related: Are these friction points lurking in your app?

For instance, conversing is a more natural interaction than typing. Text is unnatural, but voice is not. With that in mind, how can you design your interactions to take advantage of this? Is there somewhere a chatbot feels more natural than a form? Is your Alexa skill designed around specific and rigid voice prompts, or can you afford to be a little more informal and conversational?

In addition, while friction can be a challenge to overcome, you can also use it to your advantage. Nick Babich lays out 4 ways that friction can be a positive addition to your user experience. Friction can do things like help your users avoid making bad decisions and make them feel accomplished once they’ve achieved their goal. So while a seamless user experience may be a business goal, keep in mind that there are instances when it can help you as well.

3. Constraints exist. Make them work for you.

There are only so many things a product can do well for a user. Alexa can set a timer, but she can’t take a pizza out of the oven. Siri can add items to a grocery list, but she can’t pick them up at the store. Find the things that your product can do well and perfect them.

“Constraints can keep users within the boundaries of what they expect to happen.”

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Over at Web Designer Depot, Mike Redaelli makes the point that “whilst constraining user behavior instead of enabling it may initially seem counter-intuitive, by limiting what actions users can undertake, we can focus on perfecting those limited options. Understanding and implementing constraints will aid in usability and help your users engage your design with minimal error, thus creating a more effective overall experience.”

Constraining user interactions can mean offering less opportunities for error. Just like friction can help keep users headed in the right direction, constraints can keep them within the boundaries of what they expect to happen.

4. Keep it simple

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, there are 4 ways to achieve simplicity in your product design. We’ve already talked about constraints, clarity, and minimum effort. The remaining piece is minimizing the “Gulf of Execution.”

Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, says the Gulf of Execution is the gap between a user’s goal and the means to accomplish that goal. When users begin to interact with a system, they should be able to translate their goals into a set of steps. The easier is it to see the path, the narrower the gulf. If the gulf is too wide, there’s a high likelihood that a user will give up on your product.

When it comes to voice-based systems and chatbots, designers have to be up front about a system’s capabilities. User onboarding and a high quality help system play key roles in helping users accomplish their goals.

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