January 19th, 2017 — March 14th, 2017
We were tasked with creating a VUI for Alexa. This entailed preliminary user research, competitive analysis, market research, historical and cultural research, academic research, information architecture, usability testing, and more.
Here's a video demo of the final product, as well as the source code. Feel free to download it and poke around. It was built on the Minecraft Helper template from Amazon.
Force Facts is a way for users to grab quick and simple Star Wars facts for the topic of their choosing. If they want a Chewbacca fact, all they have to do is ask Alexa to give them a Chewbacca fact. There’s no randomness involved beyond the fact itself.
Starting with a press release to get our ideas out of our heads and onto paper, we began to formulate our Alexa Skill. After writing about it we set out to create user flows and information architecture maps.
I started out wanting to combine the stereotypical fact skill with a quiz based skill to test people’s ability to learn with VUI. My intent was to break out of the expected mold for Alexa Skills as it stands, as well as test the abilities of VUI in general. This goal had to morph to fit the constraints of my abilities and the scope of the project.
The end goal became to create an Alexa Skill that would give users information based on specific requests, rather than a random output. So users can ask for a Chewbacca fact and get it, rather than asking for a fact and getting a random one from a list.
Starting by browsing what Alexa Skills exist, we looked to find holes in the market and needs that existed. I couldn’t seem to find any Star Wars related skills that were worth using for more than a few seconds at the time. We then brainstormed a list of six different ideas for Alexa Skills and had our classmates pore over them and give us their initial thoughts on what they thought about the need we were solving for.
Quickly identifying if any of your concepts stick is crucial in a process like this.
The first thing I did before designing for Alexa was getting comfortable with the platform. Together in a room with my classmates we asked Alexa various questions, tested her limits, and experimented with skills.
One person asked Alexa for something in an intentionally high pitched and scratchy voice, and surprisingly, she understood and responded appropriately. While we noticed the Alexa platforms capabilities, we also noted the shortcomings and limitations.
Here's a quick clip of our first interactions with Alexa.
This process of Need-Finding and Scoping helped to inform the rest of the project by establishing constraints, and giving me a better idea of what a good plan of attack would be. I did adjust my scope throughout the project, as well as my goals, due to my personal code limitations.
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.
As a class we 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.
While this was one of the most fun parts of the process, this also served to give us context for designing for VUI. What makes people uneasy? What makes AI endearing? Or scary? What does the culture you’re designing in think about AI and voice interfaces?
To begin synthesizing the information architecture and taxonomy we made initial IA maps with notes cards and followed by a few rounds of a card sorting activity. In this activity, the participant takes the cards and arranges them how they think they would fit together. This was very revealing and showed a lot of confusing holes in my IA.
Between rapid fire Guerilla tests, remote user tests, and in-person tests, I tested with a variety of different users in my demographic. From mild Star Wars fans to extreme Star Wars fans, I was able to test with users both familiar and not familiar with the Alexa platform. This allowed me to see both what I could do to better reach fans, and what I could do to help those unfamiliar with the platform be comfortable.
I addressed all of the action items in my capabilities in the final iteration of the skill, as you can see in the final demo video. I made several changes to the welcome message and help message of the skill, as well as updating the description that appears in the Alexa App.
In the future, my next steps would be to test these changes and determine how successful they were, as well as gathering more facts, an open listening state after stating a fact, and adding in multiple facts for each different topic like originally intended.
This map represents the starting point for the Skill before I began developing it. As you can see, it forks between a standard fact skill and a quiz skill. The idea was the let users study, and then quiz themselves on what they know. This didn't end up in the final version.
This is representative of the final user flow. It's simplified, but still more complex than what most fact skills offer.
This is a demo video done at the halfway point. It illustrates some bugs, some new features being added, and generally shows progress.
When designing for digital interfaces you always consider the user and try to be empathetic to them, their situation, and their preparedness. The same is true for voice UI. As such, there are a lot of similarities between the two design processes. You begin and end with the user, and try to meet their needs.
However, there are a few areas that seem to be more sensitive. For example, 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 can easily get lost since they don’t have a visual aid to help them. 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 harder to learn what you don’t know than it is when designing for digital interfaces. This makes testing with a working prototype early on very beneficial in overcoming this challenge.
At the end of the day, making the skill function took the most time next to initial research. While coding can get me into a “flow” state, it sucks up a lot of time.
I wish I had more time to test my prototype, but given my schedule and time constraints, it was limited. Additionally, coming up with a truly original concept that was possible was hard for me. In the future, I’d love to be able to hand the programming portion off to someone so that I can focus better on the concept and the usability. All in all, I'm very proud of the end product.