Designing for Voice Search

Designing for Voice Search
voice search

Human-computer interaction is rapidly expanding to encompass both typing and voice interaction. Voice User Interfaces represent a new generation of user interfaces, and they’re everywhere. We can find voice UI in mobile phones, TVs, smart home devices, and a range of other products.

Among the many interactions that users can perform using voice, there is one that is especially important: voice search. According to Gartner, 30 percent of all searches will be done using a device without a screen by 2020. And with the growth of mobile devices and voice-activated smart speakers, voice search is growing fast. Voice interaction (and voice search in particular) will soon become either a valuable alternative or even a full replacement to traditional graphical user interfaces.

In this article, I discuss what voice search is and how it is different from text search, share some practical tips on how to create a great voice-enabled UI, and look at how to optimize your website for voice search.

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What is voice search?

Voice interaction is the ability to speak to devices, have them understand your voice command, and act upon them. Chances are you have seen the ads: “Alexa, how do I cook pasta?” That’s an example of voice search—the user asks Alexa to do a search and it provides relevant information in return.

If we compare voice search with text search, it’s evident that voice search is different in terms of the result set that it returns. People who use voice search expect instant answers, because they typically perform the search while doing other tasks—cooking, driving, exercising, etc.

voice search: where
Where people use voice search. Image: Hubspot.

Crafting voice search interfaces

When it comes to designing voice user interfaces (VUIs), many designers find themselves in new territory. But while creating VUIs is different than creating traditional graphical user interfaces, you should still apply the existing principles of UX design, and adapt them to the new generation of interfaces.

Here are 8 rules that you need to follow if you want to design a voice search.

1. Design a more natural way of interaction

The ultimate goal of creating voice-enabled products is to allow people to interact with digital products more naturally and effectively.

If we compare voice search with traditional text search, it’s apparent that voice search is different in many ways. Voice speeds up the process of interaction with a digital system because it allows people to interact with a system on their own terms. It also has a significant impact on how people perceive voice-based systems—when people use voice interfaces, they tend to hold the same expectations that they have for a conversation with a human being. That means that to design great voice search, we must understand the basic principles of human communication.

When people use voice search, they:

  • Tend to use longer queries. Instead of typing a few keywords in the search field, users will use complete sentences.
  • Formulate more natural queries. Who, what, how, when, and where are common types of questions that people ask using voice search.
voice search: keywords
Top used keywords for voice search. Source: Brightlocal.

2. Design for flow

For many products that have voice-enabled interfaces, voice input is the first step of a task, and any subsequent steps require the user to shift to a touch interaction style. While switching to a touch interaction style is not bad per se, it can easily lead to a fragmented user experience. Why? Because in many cases, the system does not understand the user intent.

Consider the Siri voice search in the example below. When the user asks for the latest news, Siri simply opens the Apple News app in response. The user is invited to tap the screen to select relevant news. While this approach might work for some groups of users, many will find it useless because using Siri for this task is almost the same as opening the Apple News app.

voice search: siri
Siri opening the news in response to a voice command.

Voice-search is different from typical text searches not only in the way people formulate their queries, but also the way people expect to receive responses. People do not expect to see a list of search results. Instead, they want to go through the entire journey through speech—from their initial intention to the resolution. That’s why it’s vital to identify the objective of the interaction.

Designers should recognize the role that voice plays in their overall search strategy. To do so, it’s crucial to find answers to the following questions:

  • Who is the target audience, and what are their expectations from a voice interface?
  • What are the main tasks users will be performing using voice? What is the likelihood that a user will rely on voice interaction as the primary means of interaction in a particular case?

After you find the answer to these fundamental questions, it’s vital to identify critical user scenarios and do journey mapping. Outline the user journey for each key user scenario, and find where voice modality can fit in.

If you have a lot of different scenarios that can benefit from using voice, create a use case matrix. this will help you identify the primary, secondary, and tertiary use cases for the voice search.

voice search: case matrix
Case matrix for voice interaction. Image: Justin Baker.

You might also like: UI of the Future: Conversational Interfaces.

3. Research the platform

It is essential to grasp the capabilities and limitations of the platform you design for. Identifying the platform will help you understand the role of voice in the interaction. According to NNGroup, there are two categories of voice-enabled devices:

  • Screen-first devices. Such devices use a graphical user interface as a primary interface; the voice is used as an additional, supportive interface. Mobile phones, tablets, and televisions are typical examples of screen-first devices.
  • Voice-first devices. Such devices rely on voice as a primary way of interaction. Smart speakers like the Amazon Echo or Google Home are examples of voice-first devices.

4. Use sequential numbering for search results

In many cases, when users interact with a voice-enabled system, they expect a single, definitive result on their query. But when you have more than one search result, it’s better to assign a number for each. The numbers will provide efficient verbal ‘handles’ that let users efficiently select items. Instead of saying a complete phrase, the user can use shortcuts such as, “Select number 2.”

voice search: numbered results
Each search result has its number. Image: Mashable.

5. Display suggested search queries

If you take a look at the example from the previous point, you will notice the sentence, “Try ‘Alexa, select number 1?’” at the bottom of the screen. This is Amazon’s education mechanism in action—the voice-enabled system suggests a query that might be useful to the user. By using contextual suggestions, the system not only educates first-time users but also entices them to further engage with the device.

6. Minimize typing operations

Hands-free interactions are the main benefit of using voice-enabled devices. Speaking a query or command aloud is supposed to be more frictionless than typing it. Thus, if someone has decided to use voice search over typing, there’s a good chance they were trying to avoid taking traditional input steps to convert.

This does not mean that you should not use the screen, but the role of the screen in voice operations should be different—it should not be an input modality, but an output modality. You can use a screen to display a large amount of information at the same time as the voice response, to reduce the burden on the user’s memory

7. Prepare for error prevention and error handling

“Words are the source of misunderstandings,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. When people talk, they often don’t express their full intentions. People are used to taking shortcuts when they speak. But what may work fine for people causes a lot of problems for a digital product—the system can fail to understand what the user wants.

But even when we use complete phrases, we still create a lot of trouble for the system, because a lot of information is not naturally contained in the spoken message itself. As a result, no matter how well a system is designed, we should always consider the cases when things will go wrong. We always need to create a strong error recovery strategy, and design for the scenarios where the system doesn’t understand the user or doesn’t hear anything at all.

Try to minimize dead-ends, places in user journey when users hear, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.” Use analytics to understand the points in the user journey where these problems exist.

8. Have knowledge of the context

Voice searches are 3 times more likely to be local-based than text searches. This means that if people want to search for something in their local area, they are that much more likely to use a voice UI. It’s vital to consider information like location and time of the day when delivering results to users.

You might also like: UI of the Future: The Basic Principles of Conversational User Interfaces.

Eight tips for optimizing a website for voice search

Designing voice-enabled user interfaces might sound like an investment for the future. But what does voice mean for today's products, like websites? The importance of voice search is growing fast, and voice search SEO plays an important role in your site’s visibility.

Here are 8 tips that will help you optimize your website for voice search.

1. Optimize your site for mobile

By the end of 2019, 63 percent of all mobile phone users will access the internet from their mobile phone. If your website is mobile-friendly, you are more likely to get traffic from voice search.

You can test your website’s mobile speed using Google’s Mobile-Friendly tool.

2. Make sure your website is compatible with HTTPS

HTTPS websites dominate Google’s search results, and are much more likely to generate traffic from voice search. In fact, 70 percent of Google Home results are secured with HTTPS.

3. Make sure your website loads fast

When users ask a voice-enabled system a question, they want to receive an answer ASAP. That’s why page speed is an important ranking factor. The average voice search result page loads in 4.6 seconds ( that’s 52 percent faster than the average page). Fast loading time is significant for ranking.

If you aren’t sure if your site loads quickly, use Google’s PageSpeed Insights to check it out.

4. Increase your domain authority

Search engines want to provide results from authority sites. Content that has a high level of social engagement tends to perform better in voice search. It’s essential to raise your domain authority to improve the odds of your content showing up in voice search results. Build domain authority by creating valuable content for your target audience, getting more links pointing to your website, and creating better user experiences.

5. Make sure your website is listed in local properties

Since voice searches are more likely to be local-based (i.e., the queries like, “Siri, show me shops near me.”), your content should be optimized for local voice searches. Make sure your website is listed in Google Local—it will increase the chances that users will find it when they use Google.

6. Conduct keyword research

Keywords should define the terms and phrases you care about. After you define your keyword set, you need to conduct a SERP (Search Engine Results Page) analysis. Evaluate whether the keywords you want to rank for are relevant to your business and evaluate the possibility to outrank your competitors.

7. Identify likely queries

If your site has been around awhile, check your Google Analytics data. You will find a list of search queries in Acquisition > Search Console > Queries. Try to provide answers to all those questions on your site.

You can start simple by structuring your content in a FAQ format. This provides answers to the typical questions that your users ask. In this format, you can use heading for the question and write a brief answer right underneath it.

8. Create video content

When people do a voice search for queries like, “How to prepare pasta?,” they’d rather see a video of somebody doing it than read about it. Knowing this, try to prepare video content and rank it. Add titles, detailed video description, and tags. This information will help the search engine present it as a voice search result.

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Use voice to prepare for the future

Voice is here to stay. No longer will we interact with digital devices solely through keyboard or thumb; we will be talking and listening, and this new user experience will transform everything. In the not-so-distant future, voice-enabled systems powered by AI will be able to predict our intentions and provide tailored results. And it’s essential to start preparing for that moment today by creating a solid foundation for voice search.

Have you optimized your site for voice search? Share your experiences in the comments below.

About the Author

Nick Babich is a developer, tech enthusiast, and UX lover. He's spent the last 10 years working in the software industry, with a specialized focus on development. He counts advertising, psychology, and cinema among his myriad interests.

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