In June Sabio is attending the UX Scotland 2016 conference in Edinburgh, and I’ll be hosting a workshop session on Designing Voice and Natural Language Experiences.

In starting to think about the workshop, and the likely needs of the UX, service design and digital communities that will be attending, it struck me that the pressure for organisations to interact effectively has never been more intense. The good news for customers is that, thanks to the acceleration in the performance and accuracy of natural language understanding and speech recognition, it really is now possible for organisations to provide customers with a truly low effort, high quality user experience.

However, while many organisations are still working out the best ways to deploy speech-enabled solutions or conversational UIs, their customers are already busy experiencing a wide range these in other areas of their lives. Google, for example, estimates that its number of voice queries doubled in 2015 over the previous year. Apple reports that it receives over a billion information requests a week via its Siri assistant, while enterprise speech specialist Nuance says it now processes some 14 billion customer interactions each year. Amazon has also seen strong customer take-up with its Echo home-based personal assistant, with people in the US using the speech-enabled device to set alarms, play music, make search requests, order pizzas or book Uber journeys.

We’re also seeing the rise of high quality conversational interfaces, known variously as virtual assistants, voice assistants or chatbots. Facebook has its M human-assisted chatbot service that sits within Messenger and can help in a range of ways. KLM recently rolled out a dedicated bot for Messenger that lets customers get their frequent flyer numbers, boarding passes, check-in reminders, flight status details and customer support directly within their Messenger chat threads. Another example is Slack, the team messaging app, provides access to a range of ‘slackbots’ – such as Howdy that helps users to set-up meetings or take lunch orders.

The continued rise of AI-enabled chatbots will of course have its issues. Microsoft, for example, has recently had well-publicised issues with its Tay chatbot that was provoked into issuing offensive tweets. However, there’s no doubt that speech-enabled bots will continue to play an increasing role in future customer service journeys.

This kind of daily exposure to a high quality speech interface is not only driving increased user acceptance, but also adding to the pressure on those customer service organisations that haven’t embraced conversational and multi-modal interfaces.

Voice is of course intuitive for customers; however providing a natural and conversational experience for customers isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s also probably going to get more difficult to keep up with best practice as customer service innovators extend their speech solutions with more robust natural language understanding, deeper contextual understanding and appropriate AI-enabled reasoning.

As these innovations become more prevalent, there’s going to greater consumer demand for the kind of engagement experience offered by the market’s most innovative speech-enabled service providers. This is going to present a challenge, as many organisations simply don’t have the speech, conversation, customer journey and UX skills needed to keep pace with accelerating industry best practice.

That’s why at UX Scotland 2016 I’m looking forward to discussing what steps organisations can take to design voice applications, with a particular focus on how a user-centred design approach is critical to their customer acceptance and long-term success.