I created a prototype of a voice user interface for a washing machine; from user story to a working model in Dialogflow. For your understanding I want to make my process clear so I’ve added notes where appropriate.
‘As father of a young family I want my washing machine to recommend the best washing program so that I don’t have to check the manual every time I use it‘
I’m scratching my own itch with this design! My wife laughs at how badly I understand the washing machine despite the fact that I’m a technical person. She highlighted pages in the manual for me so that I know which program to use in which situation. This lead me to think; why must I consult a manual to decide which program is necessary every time I use it – why can’t the washing machine talk to me and advise me? Our Candy washing machine has many options which I find overwhelming and I basically just fall back to the same three programs. These are probably not the most efficient or suitable programs. If the machine could ask me a few questions and lead me to the right program I think I would have a much better experience with it!
Below is the manual for our Candy washing machine. First the manufacturer created this table for the user’s benefit, then my wife highlighted the relevant column for my benefit, and still I get stuck! When I’m in a hurry or children are stealing my attention I don’t want to consider options in the manual.
Notes from Brainstorming Session
- Do people want a washing machine with personality?
- Isn’t ‘polite but brief’ the best personality for a service like washing clothes?
- If I develop a pronounced personality for the VUI, would humour work? “Think pink! Did you leave a red sock in the drum with your white clothes?”
- When the machine is running it can be very loud – this would affect the VUI (as any microphone would have to deal with loud background noise, and the user might not hear the machine)
- Features of the wash program (that should be defined by user during their conversation with the VUI so that the washing machine runs the correct program)
Length of program
Type of material; wool, cotton etc
Colour of material; dark, light etc.
- Features of the wash program (that the washing machine should be able to automatically detect)
Weight of material
Did the user add detergent and softener? (this would be detected when they open and close the detergent drawer)
User adds clothes to the drum; the washing machine’s drum‘s weight sensors are alerted to the extra weight
You‘ve added to the washing drum, should I recommend a program?
The weight is 8kg, so we‘ll need a longer cycle. Are the fabrics dark or light?
Are these dark fabrics cottons, mixed or delicate?
Got it; dark cottons. This cycle should take 2 hours. Shall I begin?
Please add detergent and also softener if you want, when you‘re done I‘ll start the cycle.
User adds detergent and closes the detergent drawer; washing machine sensors are alterted that the drawer is closed
Great – the door will now lock and I‘ll begin the wash.
Sample Dialogue (Annotated)
Immediately after creating the sample dialogue I added notes. I didn’t plan to act on these thoughts yet; they’re just my initial considerations for improving the dialogue.
Dirt, emotions and temperature!
One important feature for the program I had omitted is the amount of dirt on the clothes – this is important and a regular feature of washing machines so I added it to the design from now on. I feel that discussing dirt levels is somehow sensitive – related to living habits/hygiene/personal ettiquette. It needs to be included but the wording should probably be obvious and technical, and stay away from anything that would cause offense in the user. For example if the machine said “are your clothes heavily soiled?” I could interpret it as; did I go walking in nature in these clothes and get muddy, or am I a bit of a pig? I feel like three options such as light, medium and heavy ‘dirt level’ should work. I feel this should be treated with care, although it’s unclear whether the users will feel the way I do about it.
Also, I wrongly assumed that the temperature would be set by the machine dependent on the type of materials; in fact many items of clothing have strict guidance on their labels about what temperature the wash cycle should use. Temperature should also be included as an intent. I’m learning a lot about washing clothes from this design study 🙂
My thoughts on the VUI flowchart
- Should the user be able to restart the whole process after adding detergent? It seems to me that by this point they should be certain that they want to continue with the settings they confirmed with the VUI
- Does the user get what they want?
- Do they get what they want quickly?
- Does it feel good?
- The questions from the washing machine VUI could be randomized for some variety (but always the same three)
- Some steps require actions rather than words from the user – this seems more natural to me because the user shouldn’t have to say that they added detergent
- Each intent has unique words for the user to say, so each stage of the process should avoid ambiguity
- Occasionally the ambient noise at home can be too loud – children playing and shouting – if this affects the VUI then classic push buttons on the washing machine will be necessary as an alternative UI.
What should happen next?
- User testing, and further refinement of the design
- I would try to train the Natural Language Understanding by including all possible variations of what the user could say as responses to the VUI’s questions