6 Best Practices for Building Better Voice Assistants

Laptop and smartphone on a table with a voice assistant on both screens.

Many voice assistants are far from perfect. Some fail to carry out basic requests, others struggle to handle spontaneous conversation, and most seem detached from the friendly brands they’re meant to represent.

The truth is, it’s tough to transform a purely functional bot into a smooth and delightful voice experience that your brand can be proud of. There are just so many angles to consider to get it right—from choosing the right tone to composing the least frustrating error responses.

With over 14 years of experience in the voice tech space and with dozens of notable brands under their belt, including Mercedes-Benz, Kia, Honda, and Pandora, it’s safe to say that the SoundHound team has cracked the formula for building effective voice assistants

To help brands hit home with their own voice assistants, Anshu Chakrabortty—SoundHound’s Director of Product Management— appeared on the Inside VOICE podcast to share six key practices for building better voice assistants. 

Here are the main takeaways from her insightful episode.

1. Extend your brand through voice

According to Anshu, the first step to building a voice assistant is identifying the main use-cases you want to focus on. Then, narrow those down into the ones that truly help people accomplish things more easily with voice. 

“For a lot of brands, especially big brands, you already have a brand experience your customers recognize. So it's really extending that same experience to another venue, through voice.” —Heidi Culbertson, Founder & CEO of Marvee (source).

Anshu gives the example of a brand that helps people find hotels online. It’s much faster to ask a voice assistant, “show me five-star hotels with a pool,” than to click on a website, choose the filters and search. So in this scenario, the use-case for voice-enabled hotel searching would be at the top of the list. 

Anshu also underlines the importance of formulating use-cases that consider the context in which they would occur. For instance, the Mercedes-Benz MBUX Voice System takes into account that their users will be driving so their voice assistant’s answers need to be brief and to the point. It must also avoid redirecting the user’s attention to a screen to complete an action.

2. Give the assistant a personality

Once you’ve defined your main use-cases, you can begin to map the conversational flow for each one and define the right tone. Generally, you want the tone to fit the context (e.g. a calm and professional tone when handling banking information), or counteract any negative emotions the user may be experiencing (e.g. a reassuring tone after an error response). 

Although making your voice assistant sound as human and natural as possible is one of the hardest parts. To help, Anshu recommends reading the script aloud (or even blindfolded) to pick up on confusing or jarring dialogue. “A content strategist or dialogue writer is really essential to make this work,” she added.

As for what your voice assistant should sound like, Sonic brand composerJeanna Isham once explained that it’s not as simple as picking the voice that the CEO likes best from an online library. You need to have a foundational understanding of what persona your brand wants to represent (e.g. the friendly helper, the formal academic), so you can choose the voice and tone that conveys your brand’s character to your users.

3. Prompt natural interactions

Interacting with a voice assistant shouldn’t feel like placing an order at a drive-through. Brands need to think of these interactions as organic conversations that recognize follow-ups and can maintain the pace of a real-life chat.

At SoundHound, the team covers their bases by brainstorming every possible way that a user could say the same request. For example: “What’s the weather tomorrow?” as opposed to, “Will it rain tomorrow?” 

Granted, it’s impossible to capture every single variation that users could think of. But this is why continuous user testing is essential—before and after launching your voice assistant. Anshu strongly suggests watching how actual users ask for something to help you gradually compose the most natural-sounding conversations.

4. Handle errors gracefully

Anyone who has asked an off-hand question to their voice assistant and immediately confused them knows that this tech is far from perfect. What marks the difference between a good voice assistant and a better one, however, is how it handles those shortcomings and what it does next. 

Take Google, for example. If your internet connection fails in the middle of a search they don’t just drop you onto a blank page with a 404 error. Instead, they entertain you with a little dinosaur game until Google can get back online to retrieve your search results.

So, when designing error responses for your voice assistant, always give the user options rather than just throwing them an error message. For instance, if the assistant didn’t capture what the user was saying, offer them the chance to repeat themselves or select an option from a menu. This way, as Anshu so nicely put it: “At least if we don't have the answer, we can get you closer to it.”

5. Inspire trust in new users

Much like when meeting new people, you usually start by breaking the ice with small talk. This pleasantry also applies to voice assistants during their first interaction with a new user. 

“Small talk really helps personify and warm people up to your UI,” Anshu said. And she’s right. According to a study on smart speaker usage by Adobe Digital Insights, 53% of smart speaker owners just ask fun questions, like, “do you love me?” and, “tell me a joke.” 

It really does pay to invest in small talk dialogue because the more “human” your assistant seems, the more comfortable users will feel and the more trust they’ll have in your brand to make their experience fun and relevant.

6. Personalize the user experience

“Personalization is all about data,” Anshu said with absolute certainty. She also emphasized the importance of understanding the user’s needs before you can even begin to devise ways to personalize your voice assistant. 

You can do this in small ways, like “remembering” the user’s location when they ask where the nearest bar is. Or what their most played songs are when they ask for music. It can be as simple as adding quick shortcuts for things that they use the most.

“Ultimately, users just want to make their life easier. So make something that makes using your voice assistant worth it. It doesn't need to be complicated or in-depth; it could be as simple as giving a short, relevant response that gives the user exactly what they need.” Anshu concluded.

The best voice assistants never stop evolving

To neatly wrap up the conversation, Anshu notes that “launching is just the beginning.” 

She goes on to say that the real key to building a better voice assistant is gathering feedback from your users. Even if you follow every guideline and tip in the industry, your voice assistant will inevitably need to evolve as it gains more users. Reaching out to them for feedback and constantly monitoring the types of questions they’re asking your voice assistant will help you pinpoint what you need to improve. 

“Users expect AI to get better over time. So don't worry if it's not perfect on day one.” Anshu added.

So don’t worry if you can’t think of every use-case or don’t have a professional dialogue writer in your startup. The best voice assistants on the market will always be the ones that listen to their users and continually try to make their lives easier. 

Join the VOICE community to keep learning

Building anything in tech is always better in good company. At VOICE, we have two exciting opportunities to surround yourself with the people who know best: 

VOICE Talks is a free monthly livestream presented by Google Assistant that features different industry experts in each episode to give you the inside scoop on current trends and opportunities.

VOICE Global is a free voice tech conference on June 9th featuring pioneering thinkers, startups, and everyone in between for a full 24 hours. Jump online at any time to learn from your favorite companies and hop into private chats with your industry heroes.

Register today and we'll send you the schedule.

                    Register for VOICE Talks      JOIN VOICE GLOBAL