User Experience

Is it time to give your brand a voice?

BBH Labs interview with Marcel Kornblum, Head of Creative Technology, BBH London

Voice is one of the big technological themes of 2017 and with Amazon now claiming that ‘Alexa’s speech is protected by the First Amendment’, it is time to listen in to the conversation around voice.

Bots are already a channel that brands are taking up, so voice seems to be the next logical step. We’re expecting to see voice interfaces in lots of new places, not just Alexa and Siri and Google Home fighting to be the voice controlled service of choice within people’s four walls.

This poses an interesting brand experience design challenge, as brand strategy and technology converge in a very specific field. On the technology side there are many conversations being had about ‘voice tech’, while brand strategists have been discussing a brand’s tone of voice for years. The intersection of these two areas is what interests us most at the moment.

We are currently exploring this area with a number of our clients, and as this is all about conversations, I sat down with our BBH’s Head of Creative Technology, Marcel Kornblum, to discuss the process of designing a brand’s voice and the challenges that we are currently facing.

Labs: Contagious just released an overview on voice interfaces and said that “voice technology is an interesting way of conveying a brand’s personality and it can help foster a more emotional, human-like engagement with consumers.” What are your thoughts on this?

MK: I think there are two distinct challenges in the context of automated assistants: what the bot says, and what the voice it says it with sounds like.

Traditional tone of voice is still a factor in the sense of the choice of words that the brands use to communicate, but the shape of the challenge itself is now different. In the context of bots, the interaction between the brand and the user is much more conversational.

Tone of voice is becoming harder to control. For example, when you make a TV ad, you write a script and the brand has the voice of the brand within that script. In social, you have people who are trained to talk in the right way when they talk from the voice of the brand and that can be conversational, but it’s still up to the individual writing the messages, even though in many cases they speak directly as the brand.

With bots, it’s that conversational side of things except that it’s now all automated, so it’s even tougher to have a distinct voice.

In addition to all that, there is a new challenge which is the actual sound of the voice that says those words.

Labs: So how would you start building a brand’s voice?

MK: There are out of the box frameworks to make a bot, for example to create a new sales channel for your ecommerce site. Microsoft, IBM, Google and Facebook have open frameworks to make a bot and you can configure how the bot responds to things. Most of those solutions will have some generic understanding of conversation.

The risk there is that the conversation becomes generic. Inevitably it’s friendly, helpful and clear but not specific to your brand. It’s expensive to build a model that will be more specific to your brand.

On the voice side of things, there are lots of different aspects to the challenge but essentially the tech landscape around bots has some speech generation frameworks and tools.

These are appropriate for being very flexible and allowing any text being spoken aloud, but in the worst case they sound extremely robotic, like your accessibility assistant on your computer or your sat nav.

That approach is valid because it’s very flexible, quick and cost effective but it doesn’t sound very human, although many companies are making great strides in that area — for example IBM Watson has become much more human.

On the other hand, there are very bespoke solutions that allow the brand to really own the voice itself; many of these come from the media sector rather than the bot frameworks, and as a result may not be very flexible.

Labs: So how do you decide which approach to go for?

MK: If you need to be able to say absolutely anything with the voice, like a free ranging open conversation, you will probably sacrifice a bespoke brand voice for the infinite number of words to be expressed. Like with Alexa, users can say anything and the framework needs to come back with some sort of response, even if it is ‘Sorry I don’t understand that’.

If your application is much more on rails, as in there are specific choices that a user makes, you can go with a more templated approach.

It is a bit of an old-fashioned lo-fi option: essentially it is to record templates and words and drop the words into the template. Much like TFL or Sat-nav does (most of them anyway).

That allows you to have a clearly assembled voice but has personality that an auto-generated voice doesn’t. So it depends what kind of application you want to build.

Labs: Google, Amazon and co are the obvious players in this field but are there other areas where the innovation is coming from?

MK: Interestingly there are more sophisticated options around that are coming from specialist companies from the film or gaming industry who do lots of amazing stuff with voice. One of those is to get a voice actor to do an extremely technical recording of their voice which is phoneme based. So you record every individual ‘oh, ah, uh’ and so on. When you do that enough you can make a generated speech engine that uses that person’s voice, which then sounds much more unique and also offers an infinite choice of words.

Labs: Are there certain types of brands that lend themselves better to be expressed via voice?

MK: I think there are certain types of functionality that lend themselves better for voice than others. Voice recognition is not 100% accurate. The deficit in accuracy is really important. The standard in the industry is 94% but the 6% are infuriating. So 94% of the time everything works well, but 6% of the time it’s unbelievably awful and that is a really significant thing.

Most Alexa owners will probably say that generally they love it, but it’s terrible some of time when it doesn’t recognise things. Accents play a really big part. If you speak English with a foreign accent, recognition is way down.

When Siri gets stuff wrong it’s annoying but it’s just search and there is also a screen to fall back on. When Alexa gets stuff wrong, it’s really infuriating because there is no screen — no fallback — and no getting around it. Alexa for that reason is very command based. Google Home supposedly can be much more conversation based. So if you say a few phrases into your conversation it knows the context of your first phrase. Which makes things more natural.

The models are trained on voices. I think there is a whole other interesting topic here which is that of implicit bias, both in recognition and generation. All the generated voices are all white, they are all Susan and James. That may matter to brands if they use generated voices.

Labs: Are there differences in how to use voice, depending on the channel or platform?

MK: I think it’s much the same as with brands and their content on owned vs. paid platforms. It’s a tradeoff and there are different options available.

For example, on YouTube you put your video there and what you get is lots of people passing by and the algorithm showing it to people who might be interested, and what you give up for it is the context in which that video sits. On your own platform you get to control the whole thing, and you might still use the YouTube player in there.

If you put a voice service on Alexa or Google Home you need to talk to Alexa to get to your service, and Alexa will talk back to you. So as a brand you can provide a custom skill to Alexa, but ultimately it’s Alexa talking with Alexa’s voice.

Your owned platform offers more control but is more expensive in the development and in actually getting people there.

Labs: What is the right context to use a voice interface?

MK: There is a whole environmental thing. It can feel weird talking to your phone in public, especially if people can hear you.

It’s different in the privacy of your own home but then the challenge is multiple users, as these devices are normally shared technology. Microsoft (among others) is working on distinguishing between different people to recognise individual preferences, which is interesting as bots become part of a group conversation.

For example, bots sit on our messaging services and it is becoming normal for them to be part of the conversation. So when we use Slack as a team, there are bots in there too. There is an interesting thing about how bots will become part of our conversation in an offline world via voice and knowing which person is talking and being able to service group conversations in the real world.

Labs: In the movie ‘Her’, a super smart AI operating system gets intimate with her user and interacts with him in the most natural way possible. When we get there, will voice become the main way to interact with brands?

MK: It’s definitely going to be an important one, but I think it will differ according to territory, sector and functionality.

For example, lots of the voice innovation has come from China. China is ahead in uptake of voice interfaces on platforms like Weibo, because a huge part of the population there is not fully literate.

Another factor is that people speak much faster than they write. As voice recognition becomes better, there will definitely be brands speaking with voices because it’s a Marketing and service opportunity.

It’s a really exciting time be experimenting with this stuff.


It’s a flat planet

One more in a series of tech columns we’ve written for Marketing magazine this year. This article by Adam on flat design appeared in the September issue.

Author: Adam Powers, Head of UX, BBH London & BBH Labs

Image credit: selection of modernist, flat graphic design by Brent Couchman

Image credit: selection of modernist, flat graphic design by Brent Couchman

Sir Jony Ive revealed his vision for Apple’s iOS7 operating system on September 10th, and the SVP of Design’s vision of the world is flat.

This redesign is about more than just eradicating embossed buttons and drop shadows. In typically thoughtful mode, Ive declared, “True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter.” For the first time in perhaps a decade though, Apple is joining a movement rather than creating one.

The flat design movement has been gaining momentum amongst technology companies for some time now. Looking back, it may well have been Microsoft Windows 8 design team that pushed things past the tipping point. They created a crisp, clean and minimalist approach where geometric shapes, bold colours and sharp corners dominate the rather nice operating system. The next flat design fans were Google, with their new aesthetic applied across a dramatically improved suite of applications (Google Maps, I adore you). Then came Yahoo’s elegant weather app, but many others have followed.

Like many art and design movements, flat design was a reaction to the dominant aesthetic that preceded it. Skeumorphism – the approach that borrows affordances from a user’s day-to-day life and translates that to screen-based design with the aim of aiding comprehension. All that stitched leather, aqua shine and drop shadow of the past few years was borne from that belief. It goes back further, to the days of WYSIWYG computer desktops where the workplace norms, such as files, folders and trash cans, were employed in the language of the operating systems to help us comprehend and participate in the desktop computing revolution.

Fans of this flat aesthetic, ahem, cite this change as a sign of the maturity of human and computer interaction. Our interaction with technology no longer needs to be disguised to make it more palatable. Flat design embraces the constraints and challenges of screen-based design and runs with it. Minimalist and utilitarian design that foregoes excessive ornamentation and is sensitive to bandwidth and functionality.

Before I get caught up in adulation of this latest expression of modernism, we should pause.

It would seem that flat design might come with risks. That (once?) esteemed voice of digital usability, Jakob Nielsen, has undertaken extensive user testing focussed on everyone’s must have tech – the tablet. After testing on a whole range of fondle slabs, Jakob concludes that flat design is not optimal for tablet devices. It would appear that the absence of hover-states on tablets, combined with departure of drop shadows and the ‘less is more’ conviction of flat design, means there is “…a dearth of distinguishing signifiers for UI elements.” i.e. It is harder to intuit what is and is not clickable and therefore things are harder and less satisfying to use.

This presents a very specific challenge, but I would suggest that there are a couple of wider reaching challenges that face the flat design movement.

The first is the ever present spectre of commodification of the web. Look at the search returns page on Google, the tightening embrace of iOS and Android design guidelines or the increasingly far-reaching rules for brands on Facebook or Youtube – it’s just getting harder for brands to cut through on tech platforms and services. Though the folks at YouTube etc. might argue that brands should focus on the quality of their content rather than the ease with which they can spray their colour palette across their respective brand channels. Either way, the flat design movement does appear to be at risk of further contributing to the commodification situation.

The second challenge that I see is that much of the impetus behind flat design is from Europe and North America – where there is long history with Modernism.

What does a critical market like Asia make of flat design, for instance? A Hong Kong based expert, working at the juncture of global marketing and technology, advised me, “Whether you’re considering ux design, user testing or anything else for that matter, you mustn’t think of Asia as a single market. China is as different to Japan as it is to Australia…and each has quite a different relationship with technology…”

Actually, one doesn’t have to look too far for some quite specific insights. This Tech in Asia blog observes that in China, Vietnam and Thailand, flat design may frequently be interpreted as overly austere or ‘…a lot of hot air…” It also proposes that for many of these commercially important markets, it is in fact ‘crowded design’ that performs best.

Somebody better tell Jony.

BBH London is looking for a UX Principal

Author: Adam Powers, Head of User Experience, BBH London

The User Experience (UX) Principal will have responsibility for delivering world-class UX for BBH London across a diverse, valuable portfolio of clients.

We are looking for someone with a tenacious, entrepreneurial spirit; someone who’s happiest rolling up their sleeves in the relentless pursuit of useful and beautiful solutions in an often dynamic and changing environment. They must also be nice. (more…)