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Why Conversational UI is the next big digital disruption

Does anyone believe that CSS and Photoshop are no longer required to design our style and UI? Do we just get by with a text editor to write script and control behaviour of the robot that is technically a CUI?

A mere science fiction thirty years ago is going to become reality in near future. Going forward, the entire field of visual interface design - literally everything we know about placing controls, handling the mouse and touch interaction, even picking colours - will be affected by the switch to conversational form, or will go away altogether.

The Evolution of UI

For those who are wondering, ‘what the heck are these UI's?. UI or graphical user interfaces (GUIs) are a visual way to interact with a device by way of clicking and dragging files and programmes instead of typing commands in the terminal.

Conversational user interfaces (CUIs) allow one to talk to the UI as a way of interacting with a device. Whilst CUIs aren’t completely new, they are rapidly becoming smarter, more natural, and therefore more useful.The UI has evolved from a text-based user interface in the early generations of computers, where the interaction with one’s computer was a series of text inputs and outputs.

The graphical user interface (GUI) became popular in the early 1980’s, and has dominated technology ever since. Though GUIs cannot be done away with altogether, their monopoly is going to be challenged more than ever before by the rise of Conversational User Interfaces (CUI) bots, virtual assistants and invisible apps. As they become mainstream, Conversational User Interfaces (CUI) will forever change the way we design, develop and interact with our technology.

In short, the Conversational UI is going to be the next big digital disruption.

The Need for CUI - A Developer’s Perspective

There has been a rapid transition towards intelligent applications that human users can talk to in order to get things done. The basic technologies required to facilitate this transition are already in place. We may soon be witnesses to the threshold point, where conversational user interfaces may replace GUIs altogether, and become the gateway to the digital world.

CUI goes beyond conventional speech technologies. It utilises natural language recognition to understand the intention of our words, to hear and understand one regardless of how quickly or softly we speak, and to comprehend our meaning even when we miss speak. As machine learning and Big Data advances, conversational virtual agents will not only understand our voice command, but also grasp the intent behind it. The more CUIs become sophisticated with AI, the more they will understand hypothetical objects and future events.

The possibilities for Conversational User Interfaces go beyond our imagination. There has been a surge in complexity surrounding the graphical user interface. It requires many clicks through different screens to accomplish a task such as booking a ticket, making a reservation for your favourite show or shopping, manipulating a number of graphical objects such as buttons and text boxes. Mobile devices force application designers to capture more functionality into ever decreasing screen space, forcing the GUI into a mobile-interface world even as we grapple with the increasing information and tasks available to us.

Interface screens have become smaller and smaller, and now simply nonexistent with conversational user interface that enables the user to talk with their devices. Mobile personal assistants like Apple’s Siri, Nuance’s Dragon Mobile Assistant and Samsung’s S-Voice can rightly be described as first-generation CUIs. Though the apps help us with some basic tasks, the scope of their comprehension and helpfulness is currently limited. Amazon’s echo is a digital assistant like Siri or Google now. It accepts voice commands and responds with answers in natural language by name Alexa. One can use this cloud connected CUI to perform various tasks right from ordering it to play favourite music to controlling home appliances lights and thermostats.

User Benefits of a CUI

Whereas Google, Facebook and Amazon are well known for their analytics of purchase behaviour in a mechanical way, CUI will know its users the way a friend or colleague does. It will understand our tastes, our routines, what ingredients are running low in our refrigerator, our moods and feelings… all based on our previous interactions.

While driving, CUI will answer texts and check directions, enabling us to drive without ever taking our eyes off the road. The services don’t stop there, but extend to muting notifications and playing our favourite music to avoid driving distraction. The interface allows us to double-check the inventory tracking parameters of a product in a massive warehouse without having to stop a forklift. CUI will provide the most capable Virtual Assistants to ever hit the market.

This is the coolest part about the CUI future. Those of us with a fully functioning set of senses and limbs may sometimes take all the GUI tech around us for granted. But what if you couldn’t see the screen of an iPhone, or touch it? CUI will come to our rescue and open up the world in ways GUI never could, and never will. Intelligence is more than just knowing about something… it is related to understanding, comprehension and application of the facts. While receiving a diagnosis based on our symptoms is plain utility, but to understand those symptoms, locating the nearest specialist, and cross-referencing our schedule for an appointment based on the the doctor’s availability, before finally informing our family members and scheduling their calendar is intelligence.

This is the future we can look forward to with CUI. A CUI can allow people to talk about virtual objects or upcoming events that have no graphical representation, such as a distant GPS location or an upcoming payday.

The pain points of CUI

However, there are drawbacks. As it doesn’t have a visual side, CUI can only be perceived by the ears, and one could be competing with other conversations on the same channel. Besides, certain tasks like multiple selections, document browsing, and map search are still far better performed by GUI with a pointing device and buttons to click.

Having said this, voice recognition accuracy has improved dramatically in recent years; language and reasoning programmes have reached a useful level of sophistication. Better models of cooperation and collaboration are on the rise. Going forward, we’ll soon have intelligent and fully conversational interfaces that will be adaptable to just about anyone.

This is perceived to be the interface of the future, made even more necessary as computing propagates beyond laptops, tablets and smartphones to smartcars, thermostats, wearables and even home appliances, connecting 5 billion devices on the go. As dual capabilities, CUI and GUI are changing rapidly, so it’s time for developers to prepare and adapt quickly.

This is a unique opportunity for designers to redefine their relationship with these technologies. The words “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us’’ echo this sentiment and what is going to come in the future.

Sarat Pediredla, Co-founder and Partner at Hedgehog Lab

Image source: Shutterstock/tkemot