What You Hear Isn't Always What You Need

Just because you trust those dulcet tones it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t question them.

How a piece of information, an insight, or fact is represented plays a big part in how it's received and evaluated. The graphic designer has long been at the center of how messages are given meaning and power beyond the words and ideas they feature.

Whether it's the color, layout or choice of typeface (see Errol Morris), the design of an item often plays with the credibility and urgency of the content. Mostly this is about manipulating our preconceived notions of what we 'feel' whether it’s official, trustworthy, serious, dumb, frivolously or down right suspicious. Of course it's not all one way, those preconceptions vary massively from individual to individual and are often framed by culturally accepted ideas of authority. My favorite example of this is Michael Beirutdiscussing the perceived trustworthiness of the font Baskerville: “In my mind, Baskerville speaks with a calm, confidence-inspiring English accent, sort of like Colin Firth. No wonder it’s so trustworthy.” I'm not going to get into the anglo-centric nature of that today – I'll save that for another post.

So what about the impact that actual tone of voice and accent has concerning how we receive and evaluate information?

We are seeing the swift adoption of voice-first systems, a way to get straight to the fact, the insight, without all that 'pesky' analysis. Simply ask the question and get the answer; it sounds great. But as we pair back the information and deliver just the most actionable and immediate pieces, we rely more and more on the credibility of the system delivering it. When that happens in an audio-only context, most of us are not equipped to critically engage with the information we are receiving. It's often all too easy (for some of us) to trust Colin Firth's voice, but perhaps not so much if it's Joe Pesci's or Pee Wee Herman's that we're hearing. Perhaps you have already placed absolute trust in Susan Bennett – the original voice of Apple's Siri, or maybe feel more convinced by the construct that is Amazon's Alexa. These are both carefully crafted with dialect and persona to appeal to their audiences, much more than mere word to speech.

It has to be more than trust.

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All information we receive is colored by the medium it comes through. Even the most credible system will present you with information that doesn't match the question or context you hold in your mind (even though it may seem to). It's not that it's wrong or illicit, it's just a misunderstanding. The key is enabling people to continue the dialogue and qualify what is returned, removing the reliance on blind faith. When dealing with audio-only, there are very few cues to help people do that.

For analytics over audio or voice-first systems, it's best to use the voice for information requests and then supply a visual means for the reply. Speech is very effective for requests and orders, but visual information is better for cognition and understanding, in part because it supplies all those extra visual cues that we are very skilled at spotting, especially when that's in the form of data visualisation. By all means supplement it with an audible statement or 'key insight,' but always back it up with the visual evidence. It’s that which enables people to qualify whether the system understood them, spot other interesting data points, and even build data literacy. Also, it's a lot quicker to visually scan a list of possibilities than sit through someone reading them out. Yes, the intelligence behind the curtain could just give you what it thinks is the most useful, but then you'll never know what you're missing.

In the age of alt-facts and fake news, it's more important than ever help people check and qualify the information they receive.

So remember: be prepared for doubt, be open to questions and imagine your users are channeling the Lou Reed song Last Great American Whale: "Don't believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear."


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