Voice Computing: Another Case for Accessible Website Design
Think about your favorite science fiction stories. What user interfaces are they using?
If you thought of an older show, you probably pictured some sort of large panel with blinking, colorful buttons which operates like a keyboard with seemingly no labels of any kind. If you thought of something more recent, you may have pictured displays made of clear glass controlled with your mind or something. But in nearly every case, one of the primary user interfaces promised by science fiction is voice control. Whether you're controlling a ship or giving instructions to your personal robot slave, in the future you will be able to give commands by talking just like you would to a person.
Despite these promises, voice recognition in the real world has always been disappointing. However, two products released in the past year have a good chance of making voice control mainstream. The first is XBox Kinect, which holds the Guinness World Record for being the fastest selling consumer electronics device and includes voice recognition as one of it's primary interfaces. More recently, Apple's latest iPhone introduced Siri, which also promises to make our sci-fi fantasies a reality with a voice-controlled personal assistant. It will be interesting to see if either of these products can truly bring voice computing to the mainstream after decades of it being a quirky, unreliable novelty.
Over the past five months, I've had significant, first-hand experience with voice computing. Last June, I replaced my primary laptop with a Windows tablet, specifically an ASUS EP121 Slate, which is somewhat similar to a large iPad, but runs Windows and has built-in handwriting and voice recognition. At my desk, I typically use my tablet with a wireless keyboard and mouse, but in meetings and at home I use a combination of touch, voice and handwriting to interact with the device.
Since I've had my tablet, I've experimented frequently with using voice instead of, or as a supplement to, the touch interface. The results have been mixed, and I'm certainly glad I have other options. However, in the correct (quiet) environment, it's very satisfying to lay back on the couch and browse the web without lifting a finger.
In doing this, however, I've experienced first hand the difficulties that come from poor website accessibility. This issue is not just important for the early adopter crowd, who are currently experimenting with voice recognition for fun; the real reason to consider voice accessibility is that there are people in your audience who don't have another choice due to a disability or circumstance outside their control.
Here are some things you can do to make it easier to browse your website using voice commands, an interface that is primed to become mainstream within a few years.
1. Links should be descriptive text.
When browsing with voice in Internet Explorer (IE), you can simply read the text of any on-screen link and IE will automatically click that link. Due to the potential for confusion, distinctly worded, text-based links work best. If you have a list of articles, for instance, use the headlines as the link. Short, one-word links are more likely to be misunderstood by the system, so use them sparingly.
2. Don't require mouse rollovers for important content.
Rollovers are cumbersome to trigger using voice commands, since the location of the on-screen cursor is largely irrelevant. Drop-down menus and pop-up controls need to have non-hover alternatives.
3. Plugins don't support voice commands, or do so poorly.
4. Don't use unexpected sound on your site.
On my tablet, the voice command system attempts to interpret any sound, even sound coming from the computer itself. There's nothing more frustrating than to have audio start playing unexpectedly, wreaking havoc as the computer attempts to interpret it as voice commands. As long as you make it obvious when sound will play, a visitor can tell the computer to stop listening temporarily.
As voice-based browsing becomes more of a factor in the coming years, it will be more important to follow web accessibility guidelines than ever before. It remains to be seen whether voice interfaces will ever become as ubiquitous as science fiction suggests. But if it does, you don't want your website stuck in the past.
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