How to develop a voice assistant with personality from scratch

Isabel Hillenbrand
19 February 2019

An interdisciplinary workshop series laying the strategic foundations for your success in voice

Getting ready for the voice era has become a priority for leading companies worldwide. Voice assistants continue to gain momentum — with almost one in three European and already over one in two Asia Pacific consumers using voice search tools in some capacity. So there is no better time to start developing a voice assistant than now.

In the last months, we helped one of our clients lay the strategic foundations for a new voice assistant by bringing together a client team of business and brand strategists, user experience, user interface, service and interior designers as well as electronics developers in a four-part workshop series.

Here is what we did in the course of these four half-day meetings:

Achieving a common understanding and a user mindset

The first workshop was all about gaining a common understanding as well as a user mindset. The basis for this were personas for different users as well as for the voice assistant that were based on prior user research.

Role plays for experiencing the relationship dynamics between user and voice assistant

In order to bring relevant usage situations to life, we took on the role of the user and the assistant in role plays that were not only fun but allowed each workshop participant to really empathise with the situation and get a direct feel of what one expects in such a moment, of what is appropriate and what is not. This was an important exercise as not all participants had a previous experience with voice assistants given the relative novelty of the topic.
Among others, the role plays sparked an interesting discussion about the fundamental relationship between the user and the assistant including topics like an appropriate level of mutual respect.

Analysing the competitive landscape and gathering requirements

In the second workshop, the focus was on determining relevant usage situations and the corresponding skills required by the voice assistant and evaluating further success factors from the perspective of the user, business and brand.

Defining the core competence in interaction with other voice assistants

Together we had a look at existing voice assistants in the market such as Google, Siri, Alexa and Cortana to evaluate their respective characteristics, their brand fit as well as their specific area of competence. A special look was taken at the Asian region, where assistants have already become even more established, and on assistants less known here in Europe such such as “Nomi” of the Chinese car brand Nio. This consideration led everyone to the conclusion that it is important to develop a brand-adequate assistant that cooperates optimally with established assistants and their skills instead of competing with them.

Users, business and brand set the framework

In the next step, we collected relevant requirements with view towards 2025 from a brand, a business and a user point of view and prioritised them according to their importance for the success of the voice assistant. The main topics that emerged were trust, functional support, emotional attachment, individuality as well as the interconnection of the assistant with other services such as calendar apps.

A day in a user’s life with the voice assistant

As a final exercise, we thought about what a day in a user’s life from getting up to going to bed could look like with our new assistant. In doing this, we had the core competences of the existing assistants in mind and focused primarily on topics and tasks that are not yet covered and fit well with the brand. This exercise helped us to come up with the areas of expertise the voice assistant to be developed should have, which we prioritised again from a brand, a business and a user perspective.

Developing the character of the voice assistant

The third workshop was all about the character of the new voice assistant. With this in view, the results of the two previous workshops helped us as they already gave us a rough idea of the direction the assistant should take.

Archetypes reflect user needs and the brand

As a first exercise, we looked at the different archetypes and defined the three most important ones that play a role for the voice assistant. Archetypes reflect the basic structures of human patterns of action and our specific case was about determining which archetypes are credibly present in the brand and which play a role for the user in our context. We agreed on the Caregiver, the Explorer and the Magician.

With the ”Assistant as a Person” to the concrete personality

Building on this, we used a method in the next step that we frequently use in the context of developing brands. It is called “Brand as a Person”. In this exercise, you describe a brand — or in this case the assistant — as a person with all the details that make it up. What does he or she look like? What is his or her background? What would friends say about him or her? At the end, we had a relatively long description of an assistant personality on which all participants could agree.

Definition of the possible variance in behaviour

Following this, we scanned the direct and partly also indirect description of all personality traits and voted on their user relevance and brand fit. The final result was a set of five core attributes and additional sub attributes that specify each of them. In addition, we determined which of these attributes — depending on the user and the respective situation — allow a greater variance and which are more or less fixed. Humour and empathy, for example, are not equally important in all situations and not equally desired by all users.

Big Five as a control method

In order to see if everyone really has the same image of the personality of the assistant, we used the Big Five — an established model in the field of psychology. According to it, there are five main dimensions of personality and every human being can be classified on the following scales: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.
We determined the voice assistant’s Big Five in teams, using an online Big Five questionnaire that we completed from the assistant’s point of view. The result showed that we had indeed interpreted an attribute in different ways and had the opportunity to discuss and specify this.

Last but not least: Designing the specific behaviour of the voice assistant

In the forth and last workshop, we transferred the jointly defined character to the primary design dimensions of a voice assistant to create the actual user experience.

The five design dimensions of a voice assistant

It was ideal to have experts from different disciplines involved so we could discuss and define together how the assistant’s personality attributes can be reflected in the areas of voice, style of speech, actions, sounds and visualisation. Questions that came up involved the warmth of the voice, its gender (“Do we really need one?”) and age, the pitch of the assistant’s voice, the playfulness of the sounds as well as the dynamic of the visual elements.

That’s it! In a short amount of time, we were able to define the most important parameters of the voice assistant as well as its personality and how it affects the design. Everyone involved was part of laying the strategic foundations that he or she can now use for his or her future work.

And what happened then?

Following the workshop series, we used the results to develop a prototype of the voice assistant that combines voice, visuals and sounds together with an experienced screenwriter.

This prototype helped us to give the decision makers in our client’s company as well as potential users a realistic and tangible picture of our developments and to take the next steps towards the further development of the voice assistant.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to become an expert in UX Design, Design Thinking, UI Design, or another related design topic, then consider to take an online UX course from the Interaction Design Foundation. For example, Design ThinkingBecome a UX Designer from ScratchConducting Usability Testing or User Research — Methods and Best Practices. Good luck on your learning journey!