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Virtually Speaking

Conversation is the New User Interface

Posted by Denise Caron on Dec 14, 2012 1:15:23 PM


As anyone secure enough to date themselves will attest, interfaces for human-computer interaction have come a long way, and the evolution from punch-cards to keyboards to the mouse to incredibly intuitive graphical user interfaces and touch-screens has seen a steady trend toward greater ease of use. It’s truly been an incredible journey. Today, smart devices’ ability to respond to voice commands has received a fair share of much-deserved media attention – not to mention adoption – and many people think of voice-understanding as the pinnacle of the art of the user interface.

While voice understanding is indeed a technological triumph, the truth is that while the service, as offered by most well-known vendors, can respond to a wide variety of natural-language commands, the experience lacks depth. Users are given the ability to operate their devices hands-free, but the results of user input are exactly the same as those produced using a mouse, keyboard or touch-screen. In fact, voice understanding can now be thought of as a commodity. Much like most search and knowledge engines, it is a valuable tool and a useful building block, but it can no longer be thought of as state-of-the-art.

The latest advance in the user interface goes beyond voice understanding’s literal translation of commands. As the recent release of the U.S. Army’s SGT STAR app illustrates, Next IT has created a platform that transcends the consumer-oriented device and that increases these devices’ usefulness to people by adding the power of conversation.

Conversational interfaces uncover the true intent of user requests and commands that may be phrased any number of ways. They ask clarifying questions when they’re faced with vague input so that they can perform in the way the user desires: Imagine asking your smartphone “Can you recommend a good Italian restaurant?”, hearing “Would you like venues within walking distance, or are you willing to drive,” and then relaxing while your smartphone makes reservations and gives you directions.

Consumer-oriented devices that make use of a conversational interface are capable of learning user preferences – and since the platform enables interaction with other users’ devices, a whole new world of possibilities is opened up. Imagine, when faced with a friend’s upcoming birthday, being able to ask your device “What would make the perfect gift?” and then receiving a clickable list of possible items that’s based on your friend’s interests.

When consumer-oriented devices make use of a conversation platform, they’re able to do things like provide a single interface that integrates and controls a wide variety of apps, allowing you to say “Play me some Willie Nelson” and hear “I’m sorry, your media folder contains no songs by that artist; here are the top-five sites for downloading his music.”

Because of its two-way nature, the conversational interface opens the door to influencing behavior. Not in any strange Orwellian sense, but in a useful way: proactively coaching patients to adhere to a treatment regimen or providing much-needed encouragement to stick to an exercise routine.

Conversational user interfaces fulfill the need for a greater degree of device intelligence, simplifying the user’s life and providing a unifying experience. The consumer-oriented device becomes less intrusive and instead reshapes itself into something that’s empowering – a natural, effortless extension of the user that effectively disappears into the background. With the advent of the conversational interface, machines can now work harder for you with less effort by you.

Topics: Conversational interface, Intelligent Virtual Assistants, Natural Language Understanding, User experience, Tech