Conversational interfaces like chatbots and voice assistants have gained increased momentum in the omnichannel landscape due to their hands-free usability, implications for accessibility, and widening ubiquity. In partnership with Digital Services Georgia, Acquia Labs — the innovation arm of Acquia — built an ambitious digital experience for users of Amazon Echo: Ask GeorgiaGov, an Alexa skill built for citizens of Georgia.
Recently, Acquia Labs launched the Ask GeorgiaGov skill on the Alexa marketplace, meaning that anyone can now use their Amazon Echo device to learn how to renew their driver's license, how to enroll in pre-kindergarten programs, or how to find affordable housing simply by asking Alexa.
It's yet another striking example of how Georgia is reaching its citizens in novel ways.
This blog post describes some of the motivations behind Ask GeorgiaGov, how it works, and what it means for conversational experiences in general from the standpoint of user experience, editorial workflows, and content strategy. Our project kickoff post has more information about the underpinnings of the project.
Accessible content, reinvented
A grand transition is happening in governments at all levels — local, state, and federal — to engage citizens in ways that go beyond the impersonal phone call or agency visit. Ask GeorgiaGov continues Georgia's longstanding tradition of providing information in an accessible way for Georgians with disabilities while not compromising on pushing the forefront of emerging technologies.
"Connecting citizens with the government information they want in ways that work best for them has become a hallmark for Georgia. The GeorgiaGov Interactive team – now Digital Services Georgia – has been leading the way in embracing inclusive, citizen-centered technologies for more than a decade. With this exciting next step, we bypass the screen altogether and embrace conversational interfaces that allow users to simply ask for the information they need." — Calvin Rhodes, CIO, State of Georgia; executive director, Georgia Technology Authority
With the foundations built by Digital Services Georgia, the state government of Georgia has long been on the cutting edge of not just connecting citizens with information but also, more importantly, the accessibility of its information. In the early 2000s, Georgia pioneered a text-to-speech telephony service, which would enable any citizen to listen to a readout of website content. Today, screen readers are commonplace, and GeorgiaGov's web properties all adhere to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.
Along that same vein, we found that many users who rely on accessible technologies are also beginning to employ assistants like Amazon Echo — allowing them to avoid screen readers and other unwieldy systems.
Acquia Labs and Digital Services Georgia aimed to discover the right way to reach all Georgians with the information they need to succeed in their work with government. Our goal was to meet every user where they are, regardless of ability or socioeconomic status. By empowering citizens to take more control with Amazon Echo, we found that we could get the right information to them faster.
The content and the criteria
The Georgia.gov website houses dozens of pages as part of a "Popular Topics" section, which is the most visited. Each page concerns a single topic, with titles such as "Driver's Licenses" and "Finding a Job," including frequently asked questions and a "What You Should Know" section. Our goal was to provide a conversational — and conversationally legible — means to access all of this content by simply chatting with Amazon Echo.
To ensure the smoothest transition possible for Digital Services Georgia staff, we followed two important criteria for the project. First, the editorial workflow of Georgia.gov's editorial staff would not be burdened by the addition of conversational content. Second, editing a web-based piece of content and conversational content would be indistinguishable from an editor's standpoint.
To fulfill these criteria, we adjusted existing content to make topics easier to access and comprehend in a conversational way. For instance, certain topics had titles that did not adequately describe the information was that was given in a topic.
Because an Alexa user only hears the title of a topic while navigating to the information they’re seeking, these titles were tweaked to more clearly label the content. In other cases, calls to actions were reformulated to be less reliant on the user sitting at a keyboard. Throughout the process, we learned that undertaking a channel-agnostic approach would later provide unforeseen dividends.
How Ask GeorgiaGov works
Ask GeorgiaGov is a unique Alexa skill in that it integrates with a Drupal website in an unconventional way. To provide the most flexible experience possible for users, we opted for an approach that uses search capabilities to isolate the most promising results from the site’s content.
When an Amazon Echo user asks a question regarding a popular topic, this vocal input is converted into a text-based request that is sent to the Georgia.gov website.
From there, a combination of custom code and modules from the Drupal contributed ecosystem performs a search against indexed site content, much in the same way a typical web search is conducted. These matching search results are fed back to the Amazon Echo user in a convenient form navigable using a conversational flow.
Here's a video demonstrating a typical interaction:
In a testament to the promise of open-source innovation, Acquia Labs developed a Drupal 7 backport of the open-source Alexa module, originally built for Drupal 8. This allowed us to create a functional system in a fraction of the time that would have been necessary if starting from scratch.
Conversational content strategy and usability
As with any innovative project, our collaboration revealed some fascinating areas for exploration when it came to conversational experiences, particularly in the areas of content strategy and usability. From the standpoint of voice assistants, the issue of how to author and structure content can be a significant hurdle when implementing conversational content successfully.
Traditional web-oriented information architectures, whose telltale signs include the sitemap or hub-and-spoke structure for page navigation, don't apply to the more unidirectional and guided decision trees that conversational interfaces require. In addition, web-based content, because of its very nature, trades in hyperlinks and reference-rich prose, written under the assumption that the user can simply click on a link for more information.
In a voice assistant context, users can only experience content aurally, and links are often impossible to follow. This points to a need to attach greater importance to a channel-agnostic content strategy to avoid juggling content destined for multiple form factors in an unmanageable way. We worked extensively with the Georgia.gov content team to make sure that their content would be legible not just on a browser but also on an Amazon Echo.
From a user experience standpoint, conversational interfaces present new challenges. Traditional approaches in usability testing, such as think-aloud or concurrent probing, both of which involve the user being able to respond verbally to questions in the midst of the process, aren't possible on voice assistants.
As a result, we employed the retrospective probing approach, or questions after the fact, despite its acknowledged flaws and limitations.
Ask GeorgiaGov opens up state government for all, across more modalities than we could have imagined a mere decade ago. Crucially, it means Georgians don't have to visit an agency location or call a hotline to get answers to their easiest questions — and they don't have to open up their laptop, either.
But most importantly, Ask GeorgiaGov means Georgians of all backgrounds and all abilities can access the information they need to become a more engaged citizen.
While brands are now exploring conversational interfaces in droves to reach their customers better, we're especially excited about the potential for other public-sector experiments in conversational content, because it could pave the way forward for a more democratic and innovative approach in the way we handle that most essential of American responsibilities: being a well-informed citizen.
With Ask GeorgiaGov, we endeavor to show that providing government information conversationally is not only eminently possible; it's compelling, timely, and fundamentally important in an age of accelerating technological advances.