One of my goals when I go on vacation is to get as far away from everything electronic as humanly possible. There's just something about breathing crisp air, admiring snow-covered mountains, and consistently spying "E" on my cellphone's signal indicator that makes my soul happy. So no one was more surprised than I was when, bouncing down a river in Glacier National Park in the middle of my summer oasis, I found myself introducing VUI design to a young rafting guide who was wondering what to do with her English degree.
It was the second time in as many weeks I'd stumbled upon an English major who was pondering "What's next?" In both cases, these women had the exact skills that are in high demand but not well understood by many in our industry. VUI design isn't typically offered up as a career possibility in the hallowed halls of academia either, so there is little opportunity to connect skills to this particular role. Although it seems obvious that a GUI designer must have an eye for effective use of color, space, font, and other graphic elements, less obvious is that a VUI designer must have a strong ear for spoken dialogue and the writing skills to create it.
Unfortunately, too often, writing skills are not key in hiring decisions for VUI designers. I like to think of VUI design as a constrained form of scriptwriting: The designer creates a character (the speaking technology) and writes dialogue that rings true to character. This type of writing has much in common with playwriting, scriptwriting, and even the dialogues inherent in fiction writing; although the words appear on paper, the critical test of their veracity is saying them aloud. For VUI-based customer service, the character and dialogue are constrained by the behavioral expectations of this role, primarily deference to the customer and politeness. As speech technology broadens into other roles, including that of personal assistant (Siri is a good example), the writing style and personality open to greater creative interpretation.
It's well known in our industry that good VUI designers are hard to find. I'd challenge that we're just looking in the wrong places. Most often, people who are proficient writers gravitate toward undergraduate programs that require (surprise!) lots of writing, including English, communication, and many other liberal arts. Appropriate candidates for VUI design also lurk among those of any academic background who choose creative writing as a hobby.
To be sure, many undergraduate and graduate programs require writing. However, some styles do not mesh well with VUI design. For example, someone possessing an academic style of writing (which becomes more pronounced as the degree level increases) may not necessarily be a good candidate for a VUI designer. Academic writing is usually dense, syntactically complex, verbose, and jargon-laden: Stylistically, it is the antithesis of usable dialogue design. Similarly, business writing can be impenetrable, sometimes with the goal of purposely obscuring difficult messages. Technical writing is often dry. Just because someone has writing experience in one of these areas does not mean that she will be able to create natural, intuitive dialogues. The real question is whether the writer has the flexibility and proficiency to write language appropriate for speaking to the average consumer. This skill is an intuitive, socially responsive, and creative one that is not typically trained.
If we want to create better VUI designs, we need to start with great writers. Thus, we need to look in new places for nontechnical, nonbusiness writers who write for their audience well. Both of the women I met recently demonstrated things I'd put on my short list for a great designer: an English degree, some writing experience, and immediate understanding of the critical issues in creating a realistic dialogue with a machine. A thoughtful gleam in the eye with some stunned silence about how their seemingly "unmarketable" skills are actually very needed doesn't hurt either. But, the best way to find a great designer is to request a simple dialogue-based writing sample during an interview. If a candidate can pump out a quick, natural dialogue and explain her wording choices effectively, everything else will come with a little on-the-job experience.
So if you're in the market for a VUI designer, I'd encourage you to look no further than your local college of humanities and liberal arts. Or a river in Montana. Designers are surprisingly easy to find once you know who to look for.
Melanie Polkosky, Ph.D., is a social-cognitive psychologist and speech language pathologist who has researched and designed speech, graphics, and multimedia user experiences for more than 15 years. She is currently a human factors psychologist and senior consultant at IBM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.