Quentin Hardy at the New York Times has written an interesting article introducing conversational computing, that is, the use of speaking software interfaces.
It probably has not escaped your notice that people interact with software through conversational means more and more often. Tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon have made speaking agents, such as Siri, Cortana, and Echo, central to interactions with their consumer goods.
As with any product, designers must consider how it should relate to the cultural (and other) expectations that users have. Many such agents have voices and accents that suggest young, caucasian women. Why?
- '“In our research for Cortana, both men and women prefer a woman, younger, for their personal assistant, by a country mile,” said Derek Connell, senior vice president for search at Microsoft. In other words, a secretary — a job that is traditionally seen as female.'
In other words, people associate the work done by these assistants with that performed by secretaries, a job category long associated with young women.
Of course, other stereotypes may employed. Tony Stark's (aka Iron Man) Jarvis has the voice of an English butler, for example. A number of other such design choices are explored in the article.
These choices are justified by invoking contextualism, the view that good designs reflect the cultural and other expectations that people have. It follows that the same design will be configured differently from one cultural context to the next, a process sometimes known as glocalization.
'And, of course, there are regional issues to consider when creating a robotic voice. For Cortana, Microsoft has had to tweak things like accents, as well as languages, and the jokes Cortana tells for different countries.
'If a French driver goes into Germany using driving directions voiced by Nuance Communications, the computer will mispronounce the name of a German town with a French accent. The idea is to keep the driver confident by sustaining the illusion that the computer is French.'
As the article notes, simply complying with expectations can be problematic. Perhaps designers should be more activist about the kinds of voices featured in their works. Will AI assistants with female voices tend to reinforce stereotypes about "female" employment? Should designers sometimes promote voices and accents associated with minorities or immigrants?