The last few years have witnessed an explosion in voice interfaces and the experiences they power, including chatbots, messenger bots, and voice assistants like Amazon Alexa that are now inextricably tied to our homes, our screens, and our brands.
Voice-enabled search in action: Nestlé Purina and Acquia Labs
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Long on the forefront of voice-driven experiences, Acquia Labs has architected groundbreaking projects like our Ask GeorgiaGov Alexa skill for the State of Georgia and prototypes of shopping with chatbots and cooking with Alexa.
As conversational interfaces continue simplifying aspects of our lives, more incremental progress can easily be made by organizations looking to explore voice but without the prerogative to leap headlong into still-immature paradigms. For instance, earlier this year, the Acquia Labs team launched voice-enabled search on Purina.com in collaboration with Nestlé Purina North America.
Check out the video below to witness the voice-enabled search experience in action; it's possibly the most adorable video that Acquia has ever produced, thanks to ASH Heath.
In this blog post, I'll share some more insight into the project and how we architected and built this voice-enabled search interface, as well as some of the results of our work.
Browser-native and accessible voice search
One of the chief motivations for conversational interfaces comes not from the marketing trends that we witness on a daily basis but from the prospect of enhanced experiences for users of assistive technologies.
Unfortunately, so far, the conversational landscape resembles a fragmented hodgepodge of proprietary platforms and technologies, each with significant limitations, including monochannel devices like Google Home and Amazon Echo and voice assistants limited to certain mobile platforms like Siri and Cortana.
For our collaboration with Nestlé Purina, we endeavored to work with browser-native technologies such as HTML5 capabilities that permit speech input.
Rather than building yet another proprietary interface, we felt that this approach was important to avoid the closed ecosystems that currently characterize most conversational interfaces in the wild today.
In doing so, we can help users of assistive technologies who need browser-native input methods that straddle multiple devices in a platform-agnostic fashion.
Easily usable on both desktop and mobile
Near the end of our eight-week project, a whirlwind timeframe by industry standards, we conducted 46 usability tests randomized across 23 users.
In the process we aimed to capture how users would respond to the voice-enabled search interface on both desktop and mobile and along multiple dimensions of investigation: concurrent probing (CP), in which users offer their impressions while the test is in progress; and retrospective probing (RP), in which users answer questions about their impressions after the test is complete.
We asked users to evaluate their experience using the voice-enabled search interface and specifically asked how useful and easy-to-use they found the feature. In the end, the results of our usability tests were striking.
Out of all 46 tests, we found that when asked for a rating out of five of the feature's usability, users on average gave us a rating of 4.56 out of five, an excellent result.
With this collaboration between Acquia Labs and Nestlé Purina, we broke new ground in voice-enabled search capabilities and inspected some of the more impactful ramifications that could improve outcomes for users of assistive technologies thanks to the emphasis we placed on browser-native technologies and robust usability testing.
You can head to Purina.com yourself right now in your browser on desktop or mobile to try out the new voice-enabled search feature for yourself.
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Preston SoFormer Director of Research and Innovation Acquia
Preston So has been a web developer and designer since 2001, a creative professional since 2004, and a Drupal developer since 2007. As Former Director of Research and Innovation at Acquia, Preston lead Acquia Labs and new open-source and research initiatives. Previously, he managed the Entertainment Weekly website, led its development team at Time Inc., co-founded the Southern Colorado Drupal User Group (est. 2008), and operated an award-winning web and print design studio. Preston has presented at conferences on four continents and in multiple languages about diverse topics such as decoupled Drupal, responsive design, front-end development, and user experience.
"Working at Acquia allowed me to contribute back to an open source community I love deeply," he said.