User story: ’twas the night before Christmas

User story: ’twas the night before Christmas


‘Twas the night before Christmas and all throughout the house not a creature was stirring, not even a…

Well, it’s a lovely thought but times, it seems, have changed.  In fact, it was actually a few nights before Christmas, we were at a friend’s party and the house was echoing to the sound of ‘Ok Google’.

With the various children, dogs and puppies of the attending families now quietly in their beds, the soundscape changed from the timeless, excited squeals of youthful chaos to the digitally augmented conversations of 21st century adults.

The several couples finally settled into comfortable sofas, nursing cocktails and wearing the looks of relief common to newly minted parents at this hour of the day.  Our conversation was attended by a range of digital audio flows: voice searches through Google and Siri, smart advertisements from Spotify and a baby monitor app streaming the sounds of a toddler asleep in his nearby bedroom.

“Why is Spotify playing advertisements?!” Our hosts asked each other, a look of panic on their faces.  “Oh god, has our subscription expired?”  Spotify, it seemed, had decided they were no longer on the premium tier and with inappropriate timing worthy of the best toddler, had replaced their jazzy Christmas soundtrack with an outburst of advertisements from a car company.

As the hosts tried to negotiate with Spotify through their iPhones, supplementary party music was supplied courtesy of the baby monitor app on another guest’s Android. Their youngster, it seemed, slept better when listening to loops of trip hop, which now crackled quietly in the background over a dodgy wifi connection.

“Is your kid singing?”

“Maybe, he does sometimes.  Oh, no, that’s the song…I’m pretty sure that’s the song,” replied the boy’s mum.  “Is he singing?” She asked her husband, genuinely puzzled as to whether the grainy audio was part of the album or if we really were being treated to her two year old’s vocal stylings.

“Ok Google, how old is Madonna?” Someone asked their Moto Z in one corner of the room, trying to settle an argument about a Christmas quiz question.  A few feet away, another guest held their iPhone up to their face and demanded: “Hey Siri, is Joan Rivers still alive?”

Let’s be clear: the sounds of Christmas 2016 are not the sounds of Christmas 2015.

While voice searches have been possible on smartphones for many years, something happened in the last 12 months.  Several lines have finally converged on the graph: quality of recognition, speed of response and, crucially, a change in social etiquette.

It no longer feels weird to sit in a group and ask your phone a question. Soon, it will no longer feel weird to sit in a group and ask the thin air a question, courtesy of Google Home, Amazon Alexa or whatever omnipotent voice assistant emerges next year.

I’ve noticed it in my own usage too. Sometime this year I realised more of my web searches were initiated through voice than text.  Strangely, it wasn’t search itself which established this behaviour for me, but rather using voice to initiate cooking timers on my phone.  Once you’re in the swing of asking your phone to set a 17 minute bread baking timer, it doesn’t seem strange to ask it random questions about the lives of celebrities.

Of course, at Christmas, we all like our stories to have a moral, so I’ll have a go at extracting one from this rambling observation of the 21st century dinner party:

Start paying attention to hiring trends among the pioneers of this area.

Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook have been recruiting a diverse cast of script writers, audio specialists and comedians.  It is part of a much wider drive in digital industry to hire those with an understanding of how etiquette, creativity, dramatic timing and humour can elevate a digital experience.  Google, for instance, is reportedly working with joke writers from Pixar and The Onion to imbue its new Assistant with some personality.

There’s a power to being able to spot oblique vectors early.  It is often these leaps of imagination, tapping deep expertise from a tangentially related area, which lead to transformational progress in experience design.  That’s proving true in voice interfaces and it will remain true for numerous other areas of digital experience.

The hard part isn’t acknowledging that potential exists, it’s putting your money where your mouth is and investing in a speculative hire, project or new venture for long enough to see it make a real impact.

Part of MEX User Stories, an ongoing series of tales about digital user experience in the real world.

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