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Improved Accessibility Through Voice

Soroush Arghavan

Soroush Arghavan

Software Engineer Manager

June 25, 2019

Two Connected employees writing on a whiteboard.

The words we live by at Connected is to Build Better Products. What makes a product “better”? A large aspect of better is its ability to be usable and valuable to all possible users which are unfortunately something that many companies overlook. Accessibility is an important part of every project we take on at Connected. Software Engineering Manager, Soroush Arghavan, and Product Designer, Amos Marsters, share their experiences and thoughts around building accessible products below.

Soroush Arghavan: I used to have a neighbour in Iran who is a war veteran. Even though the use of his left hand is limited, he wants to be independent––specifically he wants to still be able to drive on his own. In order to use his car, he had a custom-built apparatus to use his right hand instead of his left hand to use the turn indicator. While this solution worked, when you look at the automobile industry and how accessible they are as a whole, you can definitely see that they aren’t where they should be. For instance, with Tesla, most of the functions are moved to the center console. Imagine you had limited movement in your neck, operating a vehicle like this would be very difficult. 

The problem with many products is that they aren’t created with accessibility for the end-users in mind. I’ll give you another scenario: speakers with voice assistants are great for people who have no sight, but to set it up you need to use an app… which requires sight. This sort of paradox in product design occurs more often than you might think, and in this case, it completely sabotages the user’s independence.

Amos Marsters: In my case, I often see a clear divide between my grandparents and my parents. My grandma is barely on Facebook and doesn’t really understand how the internet works. As soon as something goes wrong with the internet, she’ll call someone to get help. With my parents, they know how to browse the internet, use social media, and create events on Eventbrite, but as soon as something goes wrong with their devices or their website they call me for help. When you grow up with technology, you’re not scared to take risks.

An important point to note is that things that are common knowledge to you––as a young person who grew up with technology––isn’t common knowledge to them. It’s intriguing to see such a strong generational divide. We can all do a better job with accessibility. When we think of accessibility, we think of larger font sizes, what material design to use for products and things of that nature. This issue arises when we realize that a lot of people don’t have laptops or smartphones to use these products. Technology, like voice, allows them to use something they already have (their voice) to do simple tasks like calling their child. 

While voice is certainly among the most accessible routes we can take, it’s not without challenges. First, we have to advance the products’ capabilities to be able to sift through “filler speech”. Here’s an example that people would understand quickly but a voice assistant would not, “Hey Google, can you play that song by the artist that won a bunch of Grammys with the lyrics about fire and rain?” Currently, this sort of word-salad is difficult for many voice products to process. We shouldn’t have to adapt to them, they should adapt to us. We have to work to improve their intuitiveness and flow in conversation. This will make them markedly more accessible by encapsulating the broad diversity of speech speed, syntax, and diction used every day. 

Soroush: Building off that, I think it’s sometimes difficult for engineers and designers to realize the different avenues they can take in their products. Oftentimes we only see things from our perspectives. I believe it’s important to “walk a mile in their shoes” to gain insights into user pain points. How can we do this? It’s simple. Take a part of the design out, and ask yourself, is the product still usable? When considering visual disabilities, try using your product with your eyes closed. The simplicity of these tests does not diminish their value whatsoever. Companies should never use cost as an excuse to undercut accessibility. As product builders, we make a commitment to deliver usable, user-centric products that delight its users. How can we do that if the user can’t even set the voice assistant up? 

Amos: If you build a truly accessible voice product, it eliminates a sizeable number of potential hindrances for users. Let’s look at the elderly. First off, using a smartphone can be difficult because of the small screen. With new models, there aren’t even buttons that you can push to go to the home screen, etc. This requires a level of dexterity that many elderly people just don’t have. Now let’s say that my grandma was able to learn the gestures necessary to operate a smartphone; after taking the time to learn a long set of gestures she’s now expected to learn a whole new set of terms and technical jargon. This simply isn’t feasible. This is where voice comes in. It has the potential to completely eliminate the need for people to learn cumbersome technical nomenclature as well as leaving people free to use their hands and walk around without distraction. As a Product Designer, I truly believe that voice––when designed and executed properly––is one of the routes we should be heavily investing in if we are to build a more accessible world for both past and future generations.

Soroush: I couldn’t agree more. ‍

Editor’s Note: There’s a lot we can do to build more accessible products. Accessibility is such a broad term, so we’ll dive deeper on greater examples of accessible products for vision, auditory/speech, physical, and neurological impairments and how you can practice using the right tools to build better products in future blogs. Stay tuned for more on our thoughts on accessible products! In the meantime, read about the Three Myths of Accessible Product Development written by Connected Director of Design, Jackson McConnell.

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