Are We There Yet?

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December 19, 2007, was a proud day at my house. U.S. News & World Report posted its Best Careers 2008 article, and usability/user experience specialist made the list. The article reported a strong outlook for usability specialists because of the proliferation of complex new technical products coming into the market. Both my spouse and I work in the field, so we took this as a bit of good news in terms of job security.

The article went on to label companies that believe they can produce high-tech products without a trained usability professional as "shortsighted." For us, this was public vindication for all the time we spend justifying our existence on project teams. It also was a hopeful sign that eliminating or cutting back on user experience is increasingly viewed as a poor business decision, not as a reasonable way to meet a schedule or budget.

The article made me think about the state of user experience in speech technology. My spouse works in Web and software user experience, which has embraced the significance of user experience more fully than the speech community. The importance of voice user interface (VUI) design as an activity separate from development is now widely accepted. VUI designer is now recognized as a job title and profession by most organizations selling or using speech technology. Doesn’t this negate my original point that speech is half a step behind GUI in acceptance of user experience? No, because of the expectations we have for the responsibilities assigned to the VUI designer.

Officially, VUI designers write prompts—a huge undertaking totally belittled by its name. You can’t just sit down and write prompts the way I’m just writing this column. Effective, appropriate prompts emerge only through a complete understanding of users of the system, their states of mind and contexts of use, the functionality offered, and the business goals of the organization implementing the system. Just writing prompts is more than enough to keep VUI designers busy.

Who Else Would Do It?
The unofficial responsibility of the VUI designer is to monitor the overall user experience of the system as well.  The VUI designer is usually the person most aware of and concerned with user experience. This makes intuitive sense because the prompts that the designer creates are the primary way in which users experience the system. VUI designers have to be concerned about the user experience they are providing, so they should be responsible for overseeing user experience, right? Plus, there’s usually no one else to take on this responsibility.

There should be someone else—a usability/user experience specialist. Monitoring the user experience is essentially an evaluative task that requires a different mindset and focus than the creative task of designing. Usability specialists are concerned with design, but they remain a step removed from it; similarly, designers and information architects are motivated by the overall user experience, but it falls outside their responsibility to evaluate it. This division of labor allows designers to be creative and try new techniques without being bound at every turn by thoughts of how well they will test in usability. And usability specialists can come to the task of observing users without a personal stake in the success of the design, allowing them a measure of objectivity that is hard to have otherwise.

In all of this I’m not suggesting that VUI designers can’t monitor the user experience, or that usability specialists can’t design. I know many who do their utmost to fulfill both roles and perform admirably. But having run a usability test on my own VUI design, I can attest to the difficulty of maintaining cool objectivity in this circumstance. The best VUI designers are invested in the success of their creations and fervently want users to like their designs—not the mindset you want for level-headed observation and analysis.  

My plea to those in charge of speech project teams is simple: Get a user experience specialist in addition to your VUI designer. This doesn’t necessarily mean a new hire, although ideally this would be the case. Instead, the user experience specialist role can be fulfilled by another individual on the VUI design staff whose job is evaluation, not design. When we collectively grasp the importance of having separate creative and evaluative roles in creating the user experience, the state of the user experience for speech will have its best chance for success.

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is founder and principal at SpeechUsability and a member of the board of directors at the Applied Voice Input/Output Society (AVIOS). She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

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