Every drop-down list is a voice tech opportunity

Amazon kickstarted the voice interface revolution with their affordable Echo devices. We’re now over 5 years in and they’re great for asking for the weather, starting a Spotify playlist, setting reminders and turning your lights off.

You can of course do lots of other things with voice speakers, as detailed in the excellent “More than just weather and music” book. But, if we’re honest, there haven’t been the plethora of breakthrough use-cases such as we saw shortly after the app store launched on iOS.

Nonetheless, I’m still bullish on voice technology and one of the primary reasons is the existence of drop-down lists.

Since the dawn of the Graphical User Interface, the drop-down list has been a key item in the user experience designer’s toolbox.

How many times have you needed to select your country from a list of the world’s countries when filling in profile information?

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It is a useful solution when there is a long list of items from which the user must select one. Without the drop-down list screen real-estate could quickly become taken over by, in this case, 195 country names.

But, despite their uses they also have some significant UX downsides:

  • They can be overwhelming and hard to scroll through when they have more than 10 or so items;
  • They’re implemented differently across different devices and operating systems making them an inconsistent experience for the user;
  • Click-scroll-click is three interactions to get to the selection
  • They’re even more finicky on small screen devices

And what about multi-select? What if you want to pick two or more colours from a list? That can become really challenging.

And then there are the Devil’s work of hierarchical lists. How many times have you used a drop down menu with multiple levels and accidentally moved the cursor off of the list only for the whole thing to disappear?

Hierarchical drop-down lists are the Devil’s work
The Devil’s work (actually in MacOS they don’t disappear when you mouse-off but I know you’ve experienced drop-down lists where that does happen :p)

Drop-down lists make me bullish on voice technology because a voice interface can enable the user to achieve the same ends without all the finicky clickety-scrolling.

Consider the common task of filtering search results on an e-comm website. As can be seen in the image below, ASOS’s current solution is a swathe of drop-down lists. They’ll have a/b tested this and ensured it’s as user-friendly as it can be but even so, it’s quite overwhelming.

Drop-down filter bonanza on

Imagine if they just added a little microphone icon that encouraged/enabled the user to filter with voice. “Show me the black, Levi’s denim jackets priced under £100.” Boom. That’s 4 drop-down lists’ worth of information packed into a short, sharp sentence.

I think we’ll soon start to see microphone icons and associated voice interfaces sprinkled around the web wherever there are currently drop-down lists. These #microVUIs will make many interactions more frictionless for users and in-turn increase the frequency with which users turn to voice as an interface modality.

I’m especially bullish for this sort of mixed-modality interface in data-input heavy back-end business software. For Able Style, the #voicefirst personal styling service that I’m building, I do a lot of categorisation of products and I’ve built a mixed-modality interface that allows me to achieve some of this categorisation with voice. It saves time and reduces RSI. I’m sure many businesses would benefit from similar solutions.

In conclusion, let’s not be fearful that voice technology will drop down and disappear into the trough of disillusionment. Every drop-down list out there is an opportunity for a voice interface to show its value and encourage more and more people to become familiar with it. The breakout #voicefirst applications will ride the wave.

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Every drop-down list is a voice tech opportunity was originally published in Chatbots Life on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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