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Creating technology for an inclusive future

We explore designing products for a future where more people can participate and benefit from technology.

Eventually, we can expect to have conversations with many more devices, services or platforms. The challenge is to make sure as many people can benefit from the opportunities that new technology brings.

Ikea’s futures lab Space10 has been exploring the future of artificial intelligence and surveying users to better understand and encourage more people to think about the kind of relationship we should have with voice technology.

Good conversational interface design should apply the intricacies of human speech patterns to the limitations of technology, finding ways for computers to perform better. Language is full of ambiguities, and it’s the job of conversation designers to make computers fluent in each and every nuance.

Expanding languages

Mozilla, known for making the Firefox Browser, have an interesting project called Common Voice. Their goal is to create an open-source database that allows developers and designers to create voice applications that can speak to everyone. Most voice devices are in English and if a developer wanted to create a voice bot that speaks in Yoruba, they would need enormous amounts of voice data in Yoruba to build it. Currently, most of that data is expensive and proprietary so Mozilla’s aim is to make that possible.

Improving independence

For those with impaired mobility, conversational interfaces can give them increased personal agency. Someone who may have once relied on a caregiver to constantly adjust the bed, fan, and lights, for example, can now use technology like voice assistants for instantaneous help, allowing the caregiver to concentrate on high-level activities for the individual.

Here’s a Google Home example.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Someone with impaired hearing can also use apps that transcribe voice inputs on a screen, in real-time. Imagine being able to go anywhere—from the coffee shop to the doctor’s office—equipped with a brand new way to talk to those around you.

People with impaired vision can check the time, send messages, or confirm the hours of a grocery store without looking at a screen, by asking a voice assistant. Also, for those with memory loss, conversational interfaces can provide much-needed reassurance throughout the day.

Is greater access and empowerment a myth?

Advances in conversational interface technology have the potential to make people more independent. However, Anthony Judge, author and futurist, expressed this view in a 2018 study

“AI will offer greater possibilities. My sense is that it will empower many (most probably 1% to 30%) and will disempower many (if not 99%).
So how do we make sure to empower 99% of the world with these technologies?
Designing for inclusivity—for a wide range of use cases and a range of different people with different experiences, identities and dreams—unleashes great possibilities in the field of conversational interface design. The more seamless and fluid each interaction becomes, the easier it is for more people to use them, broadening the scope of who is empowered, and when. Additionally expanding access to the technology, for example by reducing cost or improving availability, removes extra barriers to engagement for users.

Removing bias

Bias and its impact on how we design products and services is something you’ve heard our experts speak about.
For further insight, you might like to explore the work of Feminist Internet, an organisation which has contributed to the Design a Feminist Chatbot course on FutureLearn, and researched and created design frameworks to reduce the impact of bias in conversational design.

Research and governance

A rapidly growing field, voice technologies are becoming more sophisticated and widespread. Creators and technology leaders need to continually monitor developments, create guidelines, and update best practices to ensure conversational interfaces are accessible and protect our data and privacy. Computers, which operate according to strings of code, often don’t account for an entire evolution of linguistics and cultural development over time. In order to truly understand humans they need to be reminded by us, and monitored and consistently improved by those making the technology, in order for them to keep up with society.

Have your say

What sections or groups of society do you think can benefit the most from conversational interfaces?
What areas do you think creators need to be most vigilant about?
Do you think greater access to voice technology will become widespread like mobile phones? What might makers need to do to ensure that the technology is inclusive?
Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
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Introduction to Conversational Interfaces

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