Ethics in VUI Design

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As voice user interface designers (VUIDs), what are our professional responsibilities? What are we ethically bound to deliver to clients? These are questions I had never seriously considered until I was invited recently to sit on a professional ethics panel at the Linguistic Society of America meeting.

I’m a linguist by training, and when I was in academia, ethics was part of daily life. Academics encounter human subjects committees, peer reviews, and other entities that judge their work and conduct regularly. Ethical academic behavior is well-codified, but in the corporate world, the standards of professional conduct—the ethical standards that apply more specifically to VUI professionals—are not as clear.

It’s that word, professional, that jump-started my thinking. As VUIDs, like other professionals, we are keepers of a highly specialized collection of knowledge. We are brought onto projects specifically for our knowledge and ability to apply it to create better speech systems. This led me to reframe the ethics question around the way we ought to use and share our specialized knowledge in service of a client. 

The two extremes of how we might behave are complete paternalism, in which we make all the decisions for the client without his direct input, and the "specretary," in which we allow the client to dictate exactly how the VUI should sound and feel. These are both unrealistic positions, but they’re useful in exploring professional ethics. Each extreme fails us as designers and our clients. 

The specretary model is perhaps the more egregious failure because the client is not getting what he paid for.  When a client hires us, he has the right to expect our guidance in how to construct a decent VUI.  In effect, he is paying for access to our specialized knowledge of VUIs. Now I know some VUIDs are screaming that clients force them into the specretary role, refusing to take their advice, so it’s the client’s own fault when the VUI turns out badly! I sympathize with this position and have had my share of infuriating clients who wanted to write the prompts they paid me to write. But I have come to see this adversarial position as a cop-out. It’s our professional responsibility to do whatever is required to keep our clients from ruining their VUIs. Even when they rail against us, as professionals it’s our job to arm them with the knowledge they need to help make better design decisions. If they insist on a bad prompt or poor call flow, we can’t just tell them it’s bad. We should be prepared to provide evidence of why it’s bad. 

Holding ourselves to the standard of providing evidence for our design decisions is ironically also the basis for the paternalism extreme. Some clients are so eager to accept our expert advice that they accept whatever we put in front of them. Even clients with more backbone often accept "because I’m the designer and I said so" as a perfectly acceptable answer to VUI design questions. Although this is a more comfortable position for us to be in, paternalism is a trap that allows clients to be lazy and lets us do suboptimal work.

Even if a client doesn’t ask why we’re making particular choices in design, we should always be prepared to defend our choices with evidence.  When there’s no evidence to support a design technique (as is often the case), it’s our job to gather it. 

The great thing about requiring this standard of evidence for ourselves is that sometimes we find out we’re wrong. Nothing is more energizing than data that shows that some cherished notion or de facto standard is just plain wrong. Being proved wrong—especially in front of a client—can be a blow to one’s ego, and some clients may perceive this as more reason to challenge you, but it’s not about who’s right or wrong; it’s about creating the best interaction for the end user. Remember, all data is good data, even if it contradicts what we used to believe, because it is data that allows us to design better. And collecting data helps not just our current projects, but  advances our collective knowledge as a profession. 

This is what I see as the heart of our ethical responsibility: to make clients understand the value of evidence in design and then provide it so everyone can make good design decisions.

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is founder and principal at SpeechUsability, a VUI design consultancy firm. She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

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