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New Voice Interaction Design Course Launched

With hosts Sheelagh Caygill and Shyamala Prayaga


Sheelagh: Welcome to the Future is Spoken Shyamala. 

Shyamala: Thank you Sheelagh. It's my pleasure. 

Sheelagh: It's great to have you on this very first episode of your podcast show. It's pretty exciting. 

Shyamala: Yeah, I'm definitely excited too, and thank you so much. 

Sheelagh: Yeah, you're welcome. And now tell us a little bit about yourself and your background before we jump into the subject of voice technology. 

Shyamala: Sure.

Sheelagh: Welcome to the Future is Spoken Shyamala. 

Shyamala: Thank you so much Sheelagh. 

Sheelagh: It's exciting for you to be launching your very own podcast for the Digital Assistant Academy. How do you feel about launching this show? 

Shyamala: I'm super excited. 

Sheelagh: That's great. It's good to be talking to you today. So before we jump into the subject of voice technology, tell us a bit about yourself and your background. 

Shyamala: Sure. So I've been in this industry for a long time. I mean, I've been in the user experience industry for 20 years, and seven years of which has been solely into the voice technology and voice design. So I've led the leadership, management, design and technical related roles in various companies including Amazon, Ford, and many startups. 

Sheelagh: So a lot of experience, breadth and depth of experience that really positions you well at this point in your career to be launching the digital technology, sorry, the Digital Assistant Academy?

Shyamala: Yeah, you can see that. 

Sheelagh: Good. So we're hearing so much about voice technology and UX today, can you first of all give us a definition of voice technology, and is voice technology the same as voice recognition? 

Shyamala: So this is a good question. So voice technology is a combination of things, so when you interact with a voice assistant like Alexa [inaudible 00:09:55] or Google Assistant, as an end user, you are just interacting with it [inaudible 00:10:00] whether it would answer or you ask it who are you, it would answer. That's what is the experience side of it. But in the back end there are lots and lots of technologies which are working in conjunction to make it work. So what is a voice technology? I would say that voice technology is a combination of things like speech recognition technology, the natural language processing or the text to speech which together makes the voice assistant work. And to answer your question about the voice recognition being the same as voice technology, I would say, voice recognition is a part of the voice technology, the first one which I was saying.

Sheelagh: Okay, I understand. So voice technology is an umbrella term for various features of the technologies that we are becoming used to very quickly with our phones, in our homes, with devices that we use in our cars, etc.? 

Shyamala: Yeah. So all the different things which users interact with is a voice technology, we call it voice assistant, digital assistant or conversational assistants, there are multiple names to it, but the underlying technologies are pretty much the same. 

Sheelagh: I understand. And tell us why UX is specifically important for people who want to work as voice technology assistants. 

Shyamala: So user experience is in everything we do. When you go to a restaurant or you have the food, like, if the waiter served you the food really late, you would be super frustrated; or if the food was really yummy, you would be like, you will have a great experience. So based on how the experience, the ambience, the food, the waiter or everyone made you feel, that's how you define whether you want to use something or not. So it's the same with voice assistant. So I think call it the tip of the iceberg. When users interact with your voice assistant, they care about the experience, how the assistant made them feel, whether it was boring, whether it was fun, it was exciting, whether the learning curve was less or how much learning curve was there, and things like that. So the experience becomes really important, and the moment it comes to voice assistant, why it becomes more important is voice is a very natural modality, voice comes to us naturally. We started speaking when we were kids, so when we – there was no effort to learn how to speak because it naturally came to us, unlike the technology. So the expectation for the user is when they are interacting with the voice assistant, they would expect it to be seamless for them. But then if we are asking them to learn the machine's language, that's where the gap is. So user experience is important because that helps us understand how users speak, and how they think, and then align and design our voice assistants to fit into their needs. 

Sheelagh: I see. So to become a very successful voice technology assistant, you really have to look ahead and anticipate a user's experience of a product or system that you're designing?

Shyamala: Yeah. There's a lot of processes involved, like, similar kind of processes which we have used in user experience like understanding the users, doing research, testing or designing the interactions, doing early-on testings, all the UX processes which we design or which we use in the product design, any kind of touch based product, can be applied pretty much to voice interactions as well. 

Sheelagh: That's an interesting answer. I was actually going to ask you: does a voice technology assistant or designer, do they have to do a fair bit of research on each project that they work on? 

Shyamala: Yes, depends on how the company is set up, they might have to do it by themselves or they will partner with the researcher. But research is really important to understand who your target audience is, it is important to understand how they speak, how will they interact when you design your dialogues. It is important to [inaudible 00:14:25] and see that your dialogues or responses are aligned to what the users' expectations are, because we don't want them to be stuck anywhere. So pretty much like depends on the company setup [inaudible 00:14:39] a partner or you do it yourself, but you need to be very closely tied with the research. 

Sheelagh: I see, so ensure that research is built into the process somewhere regardless of who precisely is responsible for it. 

Shyamala: Yeah. 

Sheelagh: I see. Now what is it about voice technology that excites you? 

Shyamala: The first and foremost thing I would say is it's natural. So people talk all the time, we started talking, like I mentioned, as a kid. Right? [inaudible 00:15:14] this is how you have to talk. So it's so natural, it's so unique that everyone can speak the way they want and the assistant responds unlike any touch interfaces where you have to go through a very sequential order like you press here then you see a pop up and then you press it and do some action and things like that. Voice can go into any direction, and that is one of the interesting and challenging aspects and I love challenges, so that's one more thing. And another thing is we have thought about voice in the past, we've seen in the movies, the sci-fi movies, like, how Jarvis was one of the assistants trying to protect the house. So things like that, we have seen in the movies, but who would have thought that we would actually do assistant, we thought talking is just, you know, we just talk to humans, but we wouldn't have thought about talking to gadgets, and thanks to technology, now we are able to. So like I mentioned, it does have its share of challenges because now everything is so open, people can speak however they want in whatever language they want, and in whatever sequence they want. So thinking about all those things and designing is really challenging. I think that is one of the reasons, and as we start thinking about the voice technologies, it has evolved into even chatbots, we have chatbots, we have voices assistants, even cars or drive throughs are in the car, so the utility and the adoption is everywhere. We can see it everywhere and anywhere. 

Sheelagh: That's so true. I think the first time I heard voice technology was probably when I was a kid on Star Trek, and talking to the computers and they responded and it was just absolutely amazing, I've never seen anything like it, so it does present some fascinating and exciting possibilities. Now, let's talk about the Digital Assistant Academy which sounds like such a brilliant thing to set up. Tell us a little bit why you've decided to launch the Digital Assistant Academy and what it can offer its students. 

Shyamala: So interesting, so there are a couple of things here. So one of the reasons why I developed the voice interaction design course is because voice, I mean, ever since Siri was launched in 2011, and then Alexa was launched in 2014, the voice industry has completely changed the direction. Now people are using it everywhere, there's a lot of demand for Voice Interaction Designers as well, there are different names for people who design interactions for voice, some call it BUI some call it CUI. But basically, if you look at this industry, it is picking up super-fast, and there's a lot and lot of opportunities because now, thanks to Alexa, Google Assistant, and other providers, they have opened up third party developer app. So you can also see skills and actions being developed for Alexa or Google Assistant. So there's companies who want to do it. Many companies have started building their own voice assistants. So there's a lot and lot of opportunity. But if you look at the demand and supply, there is very less. The first thing is that there's too much demand for voice interaction, so most of the people because there's no formal education or trainings available out there, they look at blog post or some YouTube videos and they learn while in the job. And although that is not a bad thing, but the biggest challenge what this provides is that there is no one set process and everyone is doing whatever they want or whatever things are working out for them, and that is why when you interact with the voice assistant, there are some quirky experiences, some voices you will want to interact more with, some assistants you don't want to interact as much with, or they are labeled as dumb or things like that. And then the other part of it is these voice assistants are also being thought about in terms of privacy and ethics and there are a lot of aspects to it, but if you're doing self-learning, the biggest challenge is you will not be able to cover all of these things, and you're just learning by yourself and applying those things. So my vision with this course is providing students with everything they should be knowing to design voice interactions in the car, at home, smart speakers, smartphones or your mobile apps or your any kind of voice applications you want to design, like, third party Alexa Skills or Google Actions. 

Sheelagh: I see. So there's a real issue with supply and demand there, and also, as you said, there's a lack of standardization. So someone could work in an organization, they could find out how to do something and completely miss that crucial aspect of privacy and perhaps even risk creating a privacy violation with a user which would be pretty scary. 

Shyamala: Right.

Sheelagh: Yeah. So we've got this level of demand, it sounds as though businesses are already looking at integrating and using voice technology. But what about the businesses that it hasn't even crossed their mind, how should they be approaching it? 

Shyamala: So see there are a lot of things, I would say here. Businesses who want to start their own, for them also it's really helpful to understand the building blocks of technologies, to understand how the voice interaction works, to understand the design aspect of it, to understand the process aspect of it, and then also understand the ethical aspect, privacy aspect. One of the biggest thing which I see as missing in the voice assistant is inclusivity. They are designed, but then they are not designed keeping inclusivity in mind. So what is happening is voice assistants are being used by a certain population, but the other population are being deprived, because it does not fit. For example, people who have some sort of disability, people who have autism, they also want to use the assistant but they cannot. So anyone wanting to start a voice business as well, needs to know all of the different aspects so that they can think about all of these when they are designing, and they can apply the processes. So that way it becomes really seamless and they can have a successful business [inaudible 00:22:04]. For example, there are many third party apps available in Alexa or Google Assistant, but [inaudible 00:22:14] of people use them, 60% of people don't know, part of the reason is because of discoverability issues or because they don't trust. So why do they not trust? Because maybe they had some bad experience or because of the new security, and these third party apps are from someone who created their own app, like starting their business. So if they knew the right tools, technologies, techniques, processes, methodologies, or like the psychology and all of those things, maybe there could be a transition into the mindset of people because you have designed an app which is trustful for the users or which has the better experience for the users. 

Sheelagh: I see. Okay. So businesses, it's almost as though you're saying business really have to look at every segment of the market that they serve and ensure that they're serving them as best they can, and voice technology can really fulfill the experience of the expectation, I should say that a client or customer may have. 

Shyamala: Yeah. 

Sheelagh: Yeah, that's fascinating. So the first course that the academy will offer is the Voice Interaction Designer course, and I'm assuming that you would offer additional courses going forward. But let's dig in a little bit into the Voice Interaction Designer course and why you've developed this course and, importantly, what it will offer students who decide to take the course. 

Shyamala: So yeah, there are quite a few things in here. So, like I mentioned, this is the first course and, of course, we are planning to launch many more. But with the Voice Interaction Designer course, the plan is to give the students a clear understanding. So when they are done with the course, we want to make sure they understand what is the fundamentals of voice interaction, they understand the techniques of voice and conversational design which is really important. So if you look at the voice assistants out there, they have a really split personality. So for example, Alexa would, if you ask it what is the weather, it would respond like the weather in Seattle is rainy and the high is X, the low is X, or something along those lines. But when you ask, who are you, it would have a very sassy personality; or when you say good night, it would say, good night, don't let the bedbugs bite you. So in some situations they don't offer conversation or personality but in other aspects they do. So with our course, you will learn the techniques and conversation design process which will help you not only design the conversations for those small bits, but make a personality which fits into the overall, so it doesn't feel like a split personality. The next thing is the [inaudible 00:25:04] we have been talking ever since kids, so conversation is really important. So instead of teaching those users how to speak to a machine, we should be teaching the machines how to speak to the users, and that is where the power of conversation and the techniques will come and, of course, we will teach those things as well. Then, as I mentioned, privacy is really important. Throughout, when we are providing an experience to the users we would be collecting a lot of data about their location, their payment or things like that. And there's no ethical ways we actually provide that information to the user saying, hey, these are the information we have collected and it's somewhere in the terms and conditions. So there is a lot of opportunity to humanize the privacy and the ethical aspects of [inaudible 00:25:53] as well, so the course will teach you those ethical and privacy aspects, so that you can include those in your design process of voice, and then make sure that you are thinking about it. Right now, the companies think of privacy in the end, but then I want them to think about privacy and ethics right in the beginning throughout the user centered design process so that we are building trust with everything. And then with all of these things, so we will provide students Capstone project. So by the end of the course, they will have a 123 Capstone depending on which package they choose. We have different packages available. So students will get to do three Capstone projects, one for Alexa Skills which will be deployed in the Alexa devices, one will be Google Actions which will be deployed into the Google devices, and then one mobile app which will be a standard app in your smartphone. 

Sheelagh: You said quite a few things there Shyamala that are important that privacy must be built into the process and it must be integrated, and then the students will go on to do a Capstone project. Now, I know that not everybody is familiar with the term Capstone, so tell us a little bit about what Capstone means and how you will use those projects at the end of some of the modules. 

Shyamala: Yeah, so a Capstone project is basically like your final project, so basically what we have done is we have partnered with industry experts, and then we have created real world use cases, like, what are the kinds of use cases for which voice will be relevant, so for example, maybe like building a cinematic [inaudible 00:28:02] or maybe building a recipe bot or something along those lines. So we have almost 25 to 30 different Capstone ideas, the tangible ones which will be, you know, which can be part of your skill, you can either deploy it, and then if you want you can also monetize it. Or if your goal is to start your own business, we will also let you select your own Capstone project and throughout the process we will allow you to apply the principles and techniques into your idea as well. So we give you a set of pre-built ideas which you can select from and then or you can select your own. So what we would do is with each module we will be applying [inaudible 00:28:49] processes, for example, you will get to do research, you will also get to do a lot of testing with the actual users, you will get to design and develop these things using the conversational platforms which we have partnered with. And then we will make sure that whatever idea you choose, start from the end, you're applying all of the voice design process. And by the end we will help you through the certification process to deploy it into Alexa or Google Assistant or your applications. 

Sheelagh: That's pretty exciting then, as you just described someone could come from an organization or their future could be wide open and they could be just about to launch their own startup, so their project can be focused on their own business which is pretty cool I think. 

Shyamala: Yeah, definitely. We don't want – so, of course, we don't want the students to feel that this course is just for people who want to get into the [inaudible 00:29:47] that's not the goal. We want to keep it open, we want to provide opportunities to everyone, and we want to enable everyone because this space is really very exciting and there's a lot of opportunities and we just want to become that platform who helps people to do it. So people who want to start their own business, of course, the deploying of the apps will help you like Alexa Skills or Google Actions or your own apps. But for people who don't want to go the entrepreneurial route and want to work with big companies or companies who are working in conversational design, what we have also done is we partnered with [inaudible 00:30:31] coaching. So what that does is through our career coach partners, you will get very – so one of the biggest problems which we have identified is all these boot camps or online courses, they provide you an online platform to learn something, but once the course is done, after that also many of the students do not get a job. And the biggest reason is because maybe some of the, you know, you've learned the technical skills but maybe you don't have those soft skills or you still need to brush up. So for example, one of the biggest things in design, whether it is UX design or interaction design is portfolio review. Storytelling very important when it comes to portfolio review. Many people are stuck with that stage and many people fail to design better portfolios. So what we want to make sure is you learn the techniques which will help you design your portfolio the right way. So our career coaches will make sure that your portfolio is presentable enough to a hiring manager, they will guide you throughout, and then the second part of it is we will also make sure that we prepare you for interviews, so we will conduct some mock interviews with industry experts so that we can see where you stand and then we can guide you, we can make sure that you get to rectify your areas of improvement. And then make sure [inaudible 00:32:08] not just leaving you that, okay, you pay us the money, this is the course, but we will be there throughout till the end of the course, and also with our career programs so you are able to successfully launch in a company wherever you want to.

Sheelagh: That sounds really great. It's so important to help students along the way, isn't it, especially younger students who have less life experience. And I would imagine Shyamala that you're so connected with the voice technology industry that you could also direct people to companies or types of industries that they could be applying towards, yeah? 

Shyamala: Yeah, that's definitely one part, and our career coaches are also well-established and then they have a broad reach as well, so we want to help the students as much as possible in whichever industry they want to. We want to make sure that it's not just the course, it's not just the Capstone project, but also the soft skills, like I mentioned, storytelling, so we also provide storytelling workshops and then career coaching and then resume building, portfolio and mock interviews, and these kind of additional support to the students, so that when they are done with the course, they are 100% confident and they will have a job in hand. 

Sheelagh: That's great. Do you think that you might even carry job opportunities at some point in the future? 

Shyamala: Eventually, yeah, that's the goal that we will set up a placement cell as well. 

Sheelagh: Good. So a lot that students can fall back on with the Digital Assistant Academy. It's truly going to provide so much value to students, and really whatever the dream is that the student has, your academy will help fulfill it. Yeah?

Shyamala: Yeah, I mean, that's the goal, and I see that's the biggest gap, like, our boot camps [inaudible 00:34:10] most of the students are not successful, I would say, it's like 20-80, 20% of the students get a job, 80% still struggle to get a job, because you've done a boot camp, you got the experience but you don't have a practical experience. And most of the Capstone projects or ideas which are out there, those are not tangible, but here, whatever you're doing, you will be able to deploy it in a device but now it's active and it's like up and running in whatever device of your choice, like Alexa, Google or an app. And then, you can either choose to show it as your portfolio which is in production or you can just monetize it and start going in a different direction. So this course provides a lot of those kind of opportunities, and it has too many variations to it. 

Sheelagh: That's great. So it's truly integrated, and it covers every aspect of learning and job seeking that a student could wish for. 

Shyamala: Yeah. 

Sheelagh: You've come from the States, so does that mean that students can only come from the States to apply for the Digital Assistant Academy or can they apply from any country in the world? 

Shyamala: So the way we have designed this thing is location independent. It is an online course. It's self-paced and our career coaches are spread across every country. And so, you can be in India or you can be in Australia, and you want to take this course, and you can take it. So there's nothing which will stop you because the entire program is designed in a way where you can do it self-paced, at your own timing and time zone. We will provide you the entire online platform. And when you have to interact with the career coaches, we have our own mentoring platform through which you can [inaudible 00:36:19] calls with mentors at your local time zone, or you can set up calls with your career coach at your time zone, and then they will be able to support and guide you. 

Sheelagh: That's great. So self-paced but again people can connect with a real life human when they need to. 

Shyamala: Yeah. 

Sheelagh: Perfect. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up this first episode of the Future is Spoken. 

Shyamala: So yeah, so one thing I would like to add is, like I mentioned, that we do provide the career support as well. So in addition to those things, we also have our own webinars, and the biggest thing what we have done with the scores is, because this is self-paced, but we would also have different batches, and constantly we [inaudible 00:37:16] have a set of students, so we have also ensured that we provide open hours to the students every month, so that if they have any questions throughout because the curriculum is divided in a lot of modules, it will be up to six months' worth of course. So every month you would have an office hour with the instructor, mentors, career code, so if you have any questions, you can always ask them in those open hours as well. 

Sheelagh: Alrighty. So full support for all the students along the way. 

Shyamala: Yes. 

Sheelagh: Great. And you mentioned something quite a bit earlier when we were chatting and you talked about how quickly the industry is evolving. So I'm guessing that one of the goals for you is to help keep your graduates up-to-date, so you might offer update modules, additional courses that cover new developments in the voice technology industry. Is that correct? 

Shyamala: Yeah, that's 100% accurate. So what we have done is we would provide the students with one year's worth of, like, one year of any updates for free included in the course. And after that, if they want, we have very nominal fees just to keep the content updated, so they can continuously get any updates or anything related to, like, anything in the industry which is new or has changed related to information in there, which will be part of the course. And again, our certificates, we will also provide you the certificate of completion, and you would get based on the different achievements which you have done. So what that means is for each of the achievements you would get a different certificate. So instead of giving you a certificate which will expire in a year or two, if any new module is introduced because the industry has drastically changed, you would have to again go through the examination and the quizzes and all the activities for that module and then you will be able to get a different certificate for that achievement. 

Sheelagh: I see, okay. And of course students, they need things like that to prove to employers that they have indeed completed a qualification, so that's important. Well, it's been lovely talking to you today, I've really enjoyed it, and I've learned quite a bit myself. 

Shyamala: Thank you so much Sheelagh.

Sheelagh: Yeah, thank you, and we'll look forward to our next episode with you, and it's exciting as well because we're going to feature in this podcast series many of the people who will be teaching the modules or at least speaking to the students as well. So we've got a huge variety of guests who are specialized in the given skill area for listeners to enjoy in upcoming episodes. So take care of yourself, enjoy the rest of your afternoon, and we look forward to connecting soon. 

Shyamala: Thank you so much Sheelagh, and you too take care. 

Sheelagh: You too. Thanks, bye-bye.