Wednesday Nov 09, 2011

Sirious Business of Voice-based Assistance: Enterprise Apps and Global UX Considerations

Yes, voice-based user experience has been around for a while. HCI freshmen grappling with Molich and Nielsen's seminal 1990 CHI paper on usability heuristics for the past two decades would have come across such user interfaces - twice. Even on mobile phones voice assistance is not new. I've used voice-based Google search on my iPhone and Google Translate Conversation Mode on my Nexus S for a long while now, for example. But now the inclusion of Siri as a native feature on the iPhone 4S has really caught the attention of the consumer market and UX professionals alike.

Siri image referenced from TechCrunch. All rights acknowledged.

We've had discussion on whether Siri is or isn't a Google search killer, jokes about its inability to deal with Scottish accents, the unfortunate meaning of the word Siri in Japan and Georgia,  outrage over the outages, and all the rest.

Two questions interest me:

  1. What are the enterprise applications user experience (UX) implications of Siri?
  2. What are the global UX aspects to the Siri potential?

As a UX professional I can see Siri use cases for mobile workers, sure, for simple input and creation tasks, but also for finding and manipulating more complex business transactions by taking direct action on data, contacts, locations, analytics, you name it, from one small device. Richard Bingham has some great points about Siri's potential in the enterprise customer service space.

Siri offers a logical means of interacting with devices that are essentially phones while on the move-your voice-and takes the natural user interface experience currently dominated by gestures to a new level. Obviously personalization and alternative interaction options will still always be needed as not everyone will want to use voice-based assistance all the time. Fine for telling Siri to approve an purchase requisition in your worklist or to map a route to the next service request within a 5 mile radius while you're driving (using a headset mind), but nobody is going to intone, Stephen Hawking-fashion, into their iPhone "Tell me who won't make quota in my sales territory this quarter" while waiting in line in Starbucks. For enterprise use, a more scalable service will also be required. An ability for Siri to handle domain-specific terms and jargon that a now comprehensive range of enterprise applications user profiles use in their conversations is a requirement too. With the mass uptake of iPhones and the fact that Siri learns from input means that shouldn't be a huge problem.

As far as I can tell in terms of international language support, Siri supports English sure, especially well if you like to speak like a real android, but also French and German. Additional languages will be needed to penetrate lucrative Asian, Japanese and South American markets. It will need to handle the more, shall we say, nuanced accents of non-native English speakers too. All this is very doable. Siri uses Nuance Communications technology acquired from the infamous Lernout and Hauspie, so global capability is in the DNA. As for usage in the field worldwide, will mobile workers in every culture take to Siri the same way, or at all? Looks like a fine ethnographic study on mobile voice assistance use in the making. 

Can we expect Google and Android to react? You bet. With all that mobile Google Translate and search expertise expect something spectacular before the iPhone 5 appears.  Of course, Siri is currently beta anyway, so by then, Apple will have moved it along significantly too.


Note: Apple says it have no plans to backport Siri to previous Apple iPhone versions, though Steven Stroughton-Smith and others have a solution to that


Czeching out DITA Europe 2011

Attended the DITA Europe 2011 Conference in Prague. Presented with Erika Webb (@erikanollwebb) the research into using comics to explain DITA concepts. Delivery went down very well, positive vibes, lots of interaction in the Q&A session, and a few souls now up for trying comics for themselves as a result. Score.

DITA Europe 2011 at the Marriott


Clearly, from what we heard at the conference there is a need for getting across to writers the fundamentals of DITA and structured authoring, so comics are worth a look if you find yourself with that need.

Loved Marie-Louise Flacke's (@flacke) session called iconmania: the use of icons in documentation when they are neither needed nor wanted--just because you can--and the dismal result for the user and DITA adoption. Future stress testing is clearly required by the IMF (Icon Monitoring Foundation) and the time is now right for a French woman to bring some badly needed sanity to the global icon commodity market, methinks.

Slide from iconmania presentation


Delighted to also find a copy of Oracle's Marta Rauch's (@martarauch) article on mobile user assistance in circulation at the conference by way of the Center for Information Design and Management's Best Practices Newsletter.

CIDM newsletter

It was encouraging to hear about a widening use of personas and task analysis in information design and about the need for usability testing of DITA artifacts and outputs. Still not enough user-centered design methodology being demonstrated IMO, but it is moving in the right direction. The now established practices of community content engagement and the buzzword du jour "gamification"  surfaced in ways that, to me, seem orthogonal to DITA. Uptake and success of a community content strategy with or without the use of game mechanics doesn't depend on DITA. As we heard at the conference, a “build it and they will come attitude” isn’t sufficient.

SAP appears to have DITA nailed as a corporate mandate (Oracle does not use DITA on this basis) and clearly has a very well-defined and managed way of going about evaluation and implementations that reminded me of the SAP diligence when adopting information quality tools (DFKI/Acrolinx).

Translation, generally, within the DITA context, continues to be spoken about in somewhat janitorial terms of a declining cost (y-axis) over time (x-axis) imperative. Whether the source or target information adds any user value in the first place--discussed within the context of the total cost of a full content life cycle--might be a more constructive approach.

Generally, I remain unconvinced about DITA saving greater translation cost than any other proper content strategy management. To reduce word counts, ergo the most visible variable in cost of translation, what you do need a change management strategy that includes migration, talent management, training, enforcement, and reporting, but above all user-centred design principles and a change in writing behavior.

DITA translatability best practices that I come across are conceptually no different from those for dealing with linguistic, rendering or processing issues in other translated formats (see my own). DITA best practices for machine translation (statistical or rule-based) remain elusive, however.

Sessions on multilingual asset management made the case well for dealing with all the large number of topics, files, objects associated with DITA-based information development, and the promise of visualization of those assets seemed a brilliant feature idea (reminded me of eye tracking scan paths) for any CMS rather than the unwieldy object trees and hierarchies we see now.

Slide from macroscopic vizualization presentaton showing DITA objects and usage

Great to be back in Prague after all these years. Once I finally got through the shambolic passport control at the airport (nobody in the EU should accept such bureaucratic buffoonery in 2011) and got to the city, I found Prague's character hadn't changed too much since I had been there in the 1990s: wonderful sights, sounds and smells, and taxi drivers each worth avoiding by a 10km radius.

Dancing House, Praha

There is a frustrating lack of multilingual signage at key points in the city. However there are some welcome new locations that require no translation at all, so I was happy.

Starbucks Praha

I easily navigated about the city on shank’s mare and the superb public transport, relying on Google Maps on the iPhone again. Never got to try Czech option on Android Google Translate Conversation Mode. Next time. Maybe at passport control.

Google Translation Conversion Mode on Google Nexus S

In all, a well-attended conference (120+, I’d say), excellent organization, varied subjects and expertise levels, and a superb location that’s easy to get to if you’re in EMEA. Certainly, plenty to think about after the conference, which is always a win.

About

Oracle applications global user experience (UX): Culture, localization, internationalization, language, personalization, more. For globally-savvy UX people, so that it all fits together for Oracle's worldwide customers.

Audience: Enterprise applications translation and localization topics for the user experience professional (designers, engineers, developers, researchers)!
Profile

Ultan Ó Broin. Director, Global Applications User Experience, Oracle Corporation. On Twitter: @localization

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