Digital assistants and the future of great user interfaces

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Have you ever noticed how a user interface can act as an obstacle, something standing in the way of the user and their goal?

When interfaces get in the way

To make my point, let’s talk about microwaves. Have you ever been at a friend’s house and tried to use their microwave, an unknown entity, to warm up your food for 30 seconds? Inevitably, you disturb the gathering with “beep,” “beep-beep,” “beep,” as you try to make this insufferable machine do your bidding.

Or maybe you’ve moved recently and needed to update your address for your renter’s insurance. You log onto the site and start scanning menu items. Could it be under “account” or maybe “settings”? As you click, click, click away you wonder why you have to do battle with a website to accomplish something so straightforward.

Now, I’m really not trying to hate on microwaves or insurance websites. I don’t want anyone to say, “Here comes Elisabeth — don’t bring up microwaves or she’ll lose it!” I’m simply using these as examples of how novel interfaces, even those designed with care and attention, can frustrate users. We can follow design principles, try to match our interfaces to users’ expectations, conduct usability testing, and still fall short.

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A future guided by assistants

For the last few years, I’ve been working as a UX researcher at companies where we make chatbots for use in recruiting. This work has catalyzed many daydreams about the potential of digital assistant technology. Recently I’ve been asking, could chat and voice bots make all user interfaces serve users better?

Let’s return to the microwave. You approach the appliance with a clear goal in your head: “I want to heat this food up for 30 seconds.” Today, you have to figure out how the microwave’s designers intend for you to make that happen. But what if the interface didn’t have to be a barrier? What if you could approach the microwave with confidence and make a request with your clear goal in mind, “heat for 30 seconds” and then — BOOM! The heating commences!

Later that day you open your laptop and pull up your insurance website with another clear intention, “I want to update my address.” The page loads and you send a quick message to the chatbot communicating your need:

You: I need to update my address

Bot: Absolutely — congrats on the move! I’d love to help. What is your new address?

You: [my address]

Bot: Excellent. I’ve updated our records. According to our information, this move will not affect your insurance rates, so I think we’re all set.

15 seconds later, you close the laptop. You accomplished your goal without any trial and error. What a delightful experience!

The stakes are high

In the examples I gave, the assistants alleviated pretty minor inconveniences. But in reality, what’s at stake is much more than frustration.

I recently spoke with my Grandma, who is 85 years old, about how she keeps track of her healthcare. She has many doctor’s appointments, test results, and prescriptions to manage. All of these are, of course, available online, but she cannot navigate the site on her own. Instead, she works with my mother-in-law as much as several times a week to accomplish what she needs.

My Grandma is very lucky to have someone to assist her in this way and I’m proud of her for asking for help. But what about all the people who don’t have someone they can call? What about all the people who don’t ask for help? So much important work, finances, healthcare, even applying for housing, is now supposed to be done online. In our headlong rush toward digital convenience, we are leaving behind all the people for whom these sites are inaccessible. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

What if instead, my Grandma pulled up the website and could ask a bot, much in the same way she asks my mother-in-law, for her most recent test results, along with an explanation of what those results mean? What if she could request a new appointment? Imagine how empowering that would be!

The revolution is coming

It may seem like chat and voice bots are everywhere, but they’re still a nascent technology, brimming with latent potential. I believe there will be a revolution within my lifetime where digital assistants make interfaces work for users, rather than the other way around. Where even people with extremely limited digital skills can manage their finances and healthcare online. I hope to see it soon, and I hope to be one of the ones making it happen.

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Digital assistants and the future of great user interfaces was originally published in Chatbots Life on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.