This winter it was as if CES was trying to prove to the holiday season that it could create the most buzz around voice assistants. So at least heading into 2018, it looks to be an exciting year for the #VoiceFirst movement.
And Google recently announced winners of the Actions on Google Developer Challenge, with awards and cash going to what they judged were the best voicebots on the Google Assistant platform in 2017. It’s about time for someone to launch an awards show called the Bottys.
At any rate, it’s worth looking into the winners and seeing what they’re doing. While we don’t have hard data to indicate if what they’re doing is working, at least they’re getting Google’s nod of approval.
So I’m going to analyze the first, second and third place winners to see what we can learn from them.
And without further ado, here they are.
- 100 Years Ago: An app that travels back in time 100 years and lets you listen to an interactive radio show, including breaking news and the latest hit songs circa 1917
- Credit Card Helper: Helps users find the best credit cards quickly and avoid traps.
- My Adventure Book: Storytelling game that lets users navigate their own adventure.
There are 4 areas we’ll assess to better understand how these apps work.
- User interface
- Landing page content
- Developer comments
The invocation is what you say to Google to get to the app. It’s the name. Now, voice apps aren’t that easy to discover. It’s not like people surf Alexa or Home like they might the web. Currently, users take a linear path through the medium, and typically have a clear idea of what they want to do or find out, if not specifically where they want to go. Categorically, audio information is consumed more linearly than graphic information.
The invocation is no small part of an apps success. The easier to say and remember, the more likely people will be to actually use it.
Here are the invocations for the three winners.
100 Years Ago
“Talk to 100 Years Ago”
Credit Card Helper
“Ask credit card helper what the best credit card is”
“Ask credit card helper what the risks of credit cards are”
“Ask credit card helper what to do if my card is stolen”
“Ask credit card helper what type of credit card i should get”
“Talk to credit card helper”
My Adventure Book
“Talk to My Adventure Book”
Credit card helper is using a range of invocations to touch on different user interests. Consider the difference between “what the best credit card is” and “what to do if my card is stolen”. The first one could drive users directly into a new customer funnel, and the second helping an existing customer’s make account changes. Both great features to offer, addressing people at different stages of the customer experience path.
So developers and marketers will want to use terms that are easily remembered, easy to say, distinct from other voice apps, and offer directions to specific sections of the app, where possible.
Once the user passes through to the app, it’s imperative to create a positive experience as quickly as possible. Like websites and mobile apps before them, voicebots will likely succeed or fail based on the first 30 seconds of the experience.
And here’s how each app greets you after a successful invocation. These screens were grabbed while interfacing with Google Assistant on the phone, as it displays the script the Voicebot speaks for easy reference here.
You can see the relative simplicity of these apps. And of course that’s to be expected from first forays into new territory. However, even early web pages often provided link after link. This is an early indicator of what will likely be a challenge for the voice web for a while to come: The small amount of content that users can comfortably navigate and consume.
One UX issue I noticed is, when going back through an app repeatedly, it’s great when you can skip through large sections of the script that you’ve already been through. Especially at the intro. Credit Card Helper did this very well, and it removed a sense of tedium from the process. You just have to say “Hey Google, skip” and you’re on to the next section.
Here’s the main navigation structure for each app.
100 Years Ago
- Hear the news
- Listen to music
- Speak to special guest
Credit Card Helper
- Help finding a card
- Browse by category
- About our research
My Adventure Book
- Single launching point with multiple paths to follow
It makes sense the simplicity of the navigation reflects the simplicity of the overall app experience, although Credit Card Helper has extensive content on each of the credit cards in its database.
A frequent discussion point in voicebot design is the optimal depth for a nav. I’ve heard more than one person say 3 is ideal. I think that might be where we are now, although I’m sure that will expand as people become more familiar with the technology.
Additionally, the AI technology behind the speech interface is also going to improve dramatically, increasing the accuracy and quality of experience.
Due to the invocation process for voicebots, one of the major marketing challenges is getting users to remember the exact invocation name. You might hear it on the radio, or see it in an ad, but when you go to visit the voicebot, via voice, you have to remember what’s likely to be a 3 word name. Not a simple task, especially when you consider marketers spend bazillions just to get consumers to remember their simple brand name.
To help with finding apps, Google has created an app directory where each voicebot has its own page. This is an opportunity to prep the visitor for their upcoming user experience.
Here are the Google Directory pages for each app.
Firstly, you can see how the many invocation phrases on the Credit Card Helper stands out, offering the user additional ways to invoke and discover the app.
The description area offers brands a place to briefly (hopefully) summarize why users should visit the app. You can bet there will be a lot of discussions within marketing departments over what goes on this page. Suffice it to say that well written copy with a clear sense of the app’s mission is going to be critical.
I’d also guess that Google will expand on the media available for presentation on this page.
Given the recency of this industry, there’s not much in the way of best practices or industry standards. Brands are going to need to use this first wave of apps for as much design and user experience information as they can get.
In addition to reviewing each app, I contacted the app creators to get additional insights about the app development process. So here are some of the highlights and challenges they reported.
100 Years Ago developer Jesse Vig used feedback from a previous app he developed to guide the direction for his winning voicebot. According to Jesse:
Prior to building 100 Years Ago, I built another action called Time Machine that reads headlines from the past and plays a brief time travel sound effect. Surprisingly, most of the positive feedback I got was about the sound effect. Based on this experience, I wanted to create a richer audio experience with 100 Years Ago.
Arun Rao, CEO of Starbutter, the company that developed Credit Card Helper, also has strategic advice for app developers:
On the design side, state your Action’s key objectives early and try to design a “Wow” experience around them. If you do too much or don’t have a clear objective, your Action won’t be interesting. The first part of “Wow” is to not do anything really dumb – which takes a lot of user testing to figure out.
I previously mentioned the challenges of designing information for a voice interface. Jesse Vig also addresses this, saying:
I was able to create a much richer experience when the action had access to a visual display, as in the case of Google Assistant on mobile devices. Reading is faster than listening, and obviously images cannot be conveyed through an audio interface.
Arun Rao has some good advice for approaching new apps:
For use cases, think about where voice or chat interactivity adds much more value than a current experience. Test this out with prototypes or videos before you build anything (BotSociety is a good prototyping tool to start with).
He also offers up a valuable technical recommendation for maximizing app performance:
On the technical side, go serverless and use Google Cloud Functions or Amazon Lambda. These are efficient and more scalable and error-proof for webhooks than having a real or virtual server.
Along a similar vein, Nick Laing, developer of My Adventure Book, suggested new developers use the existing tools.
My advice to any beginners is to start with DialogFlow, there is a lot you can do with that console alone. Once you get familiar with the platform you can write your own code to expand the functionality.
As the voice assistant industry enters it’s 4th year as a consumer gadget, there’s enormous potential on the horizon. These early examples are the tip of a large and growing iceberg. (And Earth needs more ice, right?) If one thing is certain, it’s that the devices, the apps, and the user base, are all going to evolve considerably over the next few years. It should be an exciting race.
Thanks to Arun Rao, Jesse Vig and Nick Laing, not only for their work but their generosity in providing guidance for other app developers.
I’ll be reviewing more voicebots in the coming weeks, so if you’d like to stay up on the latest creations, consider clicking the SUBSCRIBE VIA EMAIL button below.