Ultra slim executive summary

Who?
Just me. This was a solo school project.

When?
January - March, 2017 — About 3 months.

What?
An Alexa Skill for Star Wars trivia in a call and response format. If you want a Chewbacca fact, all you have to do is ask Alexa for a Chewbacca fact.

Why?
To further understand people's mental models when interacting with voice, and to explore branding via audio.

Code snippet

 
HowTo.prototype.eventHandlers.onLaunch = function (launchRequest, session, response) {
    var speechText = "<speak> <audio src="light-saber-on.mp3" /> Welcome to Force Facts. You can say something like, What's a chewbacca fact. Confused? Say help. What are you looking for? < /speak>";
    // If the user either does not reply to the welcome message or says something that is not understood, they will be prompted again with this text.
    var repromptText = "<speak>I find your lack of response disturbing. For instructions on what you can say, please say help me. < /speak>";
        var speechOutput = {
            speech: speechText,
            type: AlexaSkill.speechOutputType.SSML
        };
        var repromptOutput = {
            speech: repromptText,
            type: AlexaSkill.speechOutputType.SSML
        };
        response.ask(speechOutput, repromptOutput);
};
 

Product design goals

My original intention for this project was to test how effectively people can learn with voice user interfaces.

I aspired to create a quiz game that was tied to a random fact game. The users would ask for a fact, and then later be quizzed on those facts to test memory and retention.

However, my goal had to shift. Due to my own technical limitations, I wasn't able to join the two skill templates together. So, in the end the product shifted to being a call and response tool. More like an encyclopedia of Star Wars than random facts or a quiz.
My little echo dot at a coffee shop

Research time

Market research
I analyzed the existing Cat Facts Alexa skill and went through the rigorous Voice User Interface checklist from Amazon. I sat down with test participants and asked them to complete tasks related to the skill. I found that the skill only passed two of the items on the checklist, and left users generally confused.

Historical and Cultural Research
I literally watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and analyzed the way HAL interacts with the astronauts. I then watched several episodes of Star Trek: Next Generation to take a close look at the character Data. Specifically, the episode "The Measure of a Man" in which Data is put on trial to determine whether he is sentient or not.

Synthesis — Main Takeaway:
A different form of empathy that considers the user's environment, and expectations of emerging technology as informed by pop culture.

(The outcome of this is hard to quantify for a small fact skill, but understanding the cultural context of a new technology can do a ton for informing product decisions.)
Gif of Data from Star Trek playing with a cat
Data is an example of what our society says about AI

Card sorts

After taking a quick pass at the different components that make up the taxonomy of the app, I conducted a few card sorts to uncover my failing assumptions.

Through this I learned that my original intention of having this be both a quiz skill and a fact skill did not map to user's expectations. Time to pivot!
Participant engaged in a card sort activity

User flow v.1

This was my first pass at a flow before card sorts and any development took place. It was a bit over complicated and broke people's expectations of a fact skill.
First version of a userflow

User flow v.2

This was my first pass at a flow before card sorts and any development took place. It was a bit over complicated and broke people's expectations of a fact skill.
Final user flow

Retrospective

Designing for voice isn't too much different than designing a visual interface in that you always have to consider the user's context, biases, and goals. Voice, however, emphasizes your screw ups more.

It's really painfully obvious when something's wrong, but even harder to know what's wrong when working on it in a silo.

When designing for VUI, it’s imperative to be aware of the user’s cognitive load. If the information architecture is confusing or complex, the user won't know what's happening and will exit. You don't have breadcrumbs to save you. Either way, it’s important to give the user a way out, and a means to get help if they’re lost or confused.

I found that it's hard to pinpoint the specifics of usability issues with voice because there is essentially no discoverability. You can explain how to interact with your app in the intro but it's cumbersome to listen to, especially if the user is coming back multiple times. This means that testing with functional prototypes early and often is essential.

Thanks for reading, may the force be with you.
Code! Using Amazon's proprietary markup for speech