• March 1, 2008
  • By Melanie Polkosky Human Factors Psychologist & Consultant - IBM/Center for Multimedia Arts (University of Memphis)
  • Interact

Exploring VUI Designers: the Faces of Speech

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Welcome to the second installment of the new VUI column! It’s a great honor to join Susan Hura in bimonthly professional musings for Speech Technology. I look forward to a great learning experience, hearing your feedback, and interacting with you to develop topics of interest to our community.

As I pondered my first column, I envisioned the parade of faces that have contorted at what I do for a living: "You’re a WHAT?!?!" or (politely, with confusion) "Why, I’ve never heard of that" or "Ohhhhh, I HATE those systems." I realized that, like people in the real world, I don’t really know much about who we designers are, which makes us a little difficult to address as an audience.

So to slake my insatiable curiosity and use a user-centered approach to column-writing, I surveyed members of the voice user interface designer (VUID) online message board to find answers. Fifty-nine professionals responded. Although the effort yielded data that could keep me busy until I’m receiving Social Security checks (or not!), several interesting findings emerged:
• Most VUIDs have a mean experience of nine years, work in a speech specialty company (57 percent), and have as their job title VUI designer (56 percent) or generalist/consultant (33 percent). Only one person claimed to be a grammar designer, and no one claimed to be a usability testing expert.
• The most common fields of educational study were linguistics, communication, or language (38 percent); computer science (26 percent); psychology (11 percent); and performing arts (9 percent).
• Forty percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, 32 percent a master’s degree, and 26 percent have a doctorate.
• Educating clients about appropriate design practices (30 percent) and inadequate time or budget to perform their work (25 percent) are the biggest challenges VUIDs face.
• A lack of professional respect for design skill (44 percent) is the biggest issue facing our field, followed by a lack of standardization, best practices, or core design principles (21 percent), and negative biases against speech technology (18 percent).
• Job satisfaction levels mirror other private-sector workers, but satisfaction with salary is relatively high.
• Job stressors are similar to most workers, although VUIDs had more low-pleasure, high-arousal emotions (angry, anxious, disgusted, furious) than other emotional outcomes to work.
• To keep up with what’s happening in the field, most VUIDs rated mentoring and peer interaction as the most important (77 percent).
• VUIDs rated themselves high in self-monitoring (awareness of social cues and adaptability to social situations), more likely to complete usability testing, and better able to influence others to their points of view. However, self-monitoring skill was not associated with job satisfaction.

Several themes emerged from this data. The first was that VUIDs are surprisingly content with their jobs and look to peers for support and professional development. Most  also think positively of their management. On the other hand, they seem concerned about a lack of respect for and awareness of their skills, and perceive project constraints that do not allow for high-quality design execution. Usability testing and obtaining other types of user feedback are less a priority than simply executing a design "because I said so." This approach may relegate VUIDs to just another voice in the he-said/she-said battle of opinions over what word goes where. VUIDs may be at risk for not being taken seriously due to their educational diversity, lack of consistency, and limited formal rationale that backs up their design decisions. There seems to be a general angst about a lack of design standards and best practices, too.

So, armed with new fodder for future columns, I forecast a year of exploring the relationship between research and practice, mentoring, peer feedback, and interaction; developing effective design rationales; and overcoming real-world constraints to our success (as well as ways we might be our own worst enemies). Together we will embark on a journey to the heart of "VUID-ness." But to delve into these topics more deeply, you’ll have to stay tuned. Happy designing!

Special thanks to Alexandra Auckland and Lizanne Kaiser for their input and feedback. Thanks also to Paul Spector for measurement tools and analysis support.


Melanie Polkosky, Ph.D., is a social-cognitive psychologist and speech-language pathologist who has researched and designed speech, graphic, and multimedia user experiences for more than 12 years. She is currently a human factors psychologist/senior consultant at IBM. She can be reached at polkosky@comcast.net.


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