Have we forgotten the user experience of voice?


Marek Pawlowski, founder of the MEX conferenceThis article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, is part of an ongoing series exploring each of the 15 MEX Manifesto statements at the heart of the 7th international MEX User Experience Conference in London on 19th / 20th May 2010.

MEX Manifesto statement No. 2: “We believe the industry is missing the opportunity to create new experiences with the voice network and is disproportionately obsessed with designing apps purely for the visual dimension. “

What is the single largest mobile applications platform? Bigger than iPhone OS, bigger than mobile Java – bigger even than SMS?

The answer is the voice network.

Bombarded by daily headlines about app stores and widgets, it is easy to forget the historic growth of the mobile industry has been underpinned by the basic human desire to hear a voice at the other end of the line. The strength of this desire has produced seemingly unstoppable year-on-year increases in the number of voice minutes consumed.

It has also led to the creation of the single largest communications network the world has ever seen, with more than 4 billion people plugged into a compatible platform.

However, there has been little incentive to innovate new experiences using this platform while person-to-person calling has continued its non-stop revenue growth. There’s a natural tendency not to want to change things while the trend lines are going up and the investors are happy.

As a result, most of the development around voice has been focused on improving its back-end efficiency rather than creating new service propositions for customers.

This will have to change. As the price of voice calling declines, there will be a growing need to think about new ways of making money from the core platform by tapping into this huge, under-utilised network.

In 2009 approximately USD 600 billion was spent on voice calls over mobile networks, accounting for about 80% of the total service revenues generated by mobile networks worldwide. 2009 was also the year in which the network capacity utilised by data surpasssed that used by voice – according to data from Ericsson, this crossover point occured in December 2009, at around 140,000 terabytes of capacity per month for each.

With worldwide mobile data traffic growing at an annual rate of 280 percent from 2007 to 2009 (and showing no signs of stopping), the message is clear: an ever larger proportion of network capacity is being utilised by data services which are generating lower margins than voice.

Not only does data generate less revenue per unit of network capacity, every unit costs more to sell. You only need to look at the enormous resources being poured into mobile developer programmes by everyone from operators to chipset manufacturers to get an understanding of the huge costs involved in stimulating demand for data.

This hasn’t been a problem while the industry has had surplus capacity to sell, but as data growth expands beyond this capacity, it creates an unpalatable truth: data innovation has lowered margins and, in parallel, person-to-person voice is becoming commoditised.

There is a significant and untapped opportunity to weave together voice services and data applications into new experiences users will be willing to pay a premium for.

The most obvious examples to-date relate primarily to voicemail: Apple’s visual voicemail for the iPhone and speech-to-text services from companies like Nuance and HulloMail are some of the more prominent.

However, I think there is scope to go far beyond this. Furthermore, it is network operators which should be at the forefront of pioneering these new services. Indeed, it could represent their best chance to slow and counter the commoditisation of their business.

Operators are uniquely positioned to use their knowledge and control of the voice network to create an applications platform where experiences exist primarily in the audible, as opposed to the visual, dimension.

To take one example, I am amazed no network operator has seized the opportunity to deliver audio books over the voice network. I know many parents with young children who depend on CD-based audio books to keep their kids quiet on long car journeys.

With government safety legislation leading to a big increase in the number of mobile phones integrated with in-car handsfree kits, surely there would be a market for an audio book service you could dial into from your car phone?

The payment mechanism is seamless (you just charge customers for voice minutes, albeit at a slightly lower cost), the bandwidth required is no greater than a standard voice call, the discovery process is as simple as dialing a phone number and everything can be controlled from the back-end without the expensive porting costs of developing multiple handset clients.

This is just one example of how operators (or third parties if the operators chose to open their networks) could tap into the potential for audible user experience on mobile devices. No doubt you will be able to think of many others.

The design of mobile phones is still dominated by the need to make voice calls, so why is the industry not capitalising on this natural advantage to develop additional experiences?

Some follow-up points for discussion (I’d love to hear from you by email, Twitter or by posting a comment on the blog):

  1. Should user experience agencies develop a dedicated specialism within audible design and voice applications?
  2. Can we move beyond the negative connotations associated with IVR systems and use voice to deliver a great interactive experience?
  3. How much voice innovation will be possible for third parties without the support of network operators?


This article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, is part of an ongoing series exploring each of the 15 MEX Manifesto statements at the heart of the 7th international MEX User Experience Conference in London on 19th / 20th May 2010. Further information and conference registrations are available for GBP 1499 on the MEX web-site at http://pmn.co.uk/mex/.


2 Comments

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  1. 1
    Marek Pawlowski

    Some follow-up points for discussion (I’d love to hear from you by email, Twitter or by posting a comment on the blog):

    1. Should user experience agencies develop a dedicated specialism within audible design and voice applications?

    2. Can we move beyond the negative connotations associated with IVR systems and use voice to deliver a great interactive experience?

    3. How much voice innovation will be possible for third parties without the support of network operators?

  2. 2
    Nicky Hickman

    An attempt to answer your questions, based on the Sound Barriers research we carried out last year into Voice as a UI for mobile apps & devices.
    1) UX agencies should integrate voice into their standard UI practices and draw in experts from the social sciences to start really creating smart multi-modal UI’s that include voice.
    2) There are a lot of barriers to moving beyond IVR systems, basically we found that apart from a very small sub-section of the respondents, the majority of people only came to enjoy using voice and to loose the IVR negativity, when they were forced to use voice and had some success with it. (e.g. In-Car navigation systems)
    3. This structural question is partially tackled in the Sound Barriers research. Mainly due to costs and time-frames in delivering high-quality voice services, there is a need for collaboration from big players (including network operators) to bring down the barriers and costs of innovation in this field. There is a big opportunity for new business models which enable long-tail innovation with Voice, but the big guys need to put some skin in the game.

    There is more information on our research @ http://www.inglisjane.co.uk/soundbarriers.html including a link to request a free copy of this research.

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