Prepare to Design the Future
March 19–20, 2017: Training
March 20–22, 2017: Tutorials & Conference
San Francisco, CA

Designing conversational voice user interfaces

Cathy Pearl (Sensely)
1:15pm–1:55pm Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Technology, tools, and process
Location: Grand Ballroom
Level: Beginner
Average rating: *****
(5.00, 4 ratings)

Who is this presentation for?

  • UX designers and anyone who wants to learn more about what it means to add a VUI to their app or technology

What you'll learn

  • Understand what "conversational" means and how it applies to VUIs
  • Learn best design principles for creating a conversational VUI, whether for a mobile app or a home assistant like Amazon Echo
  • Explore how designing for a VUI is different than for a GUI


Siri has been around since 2011, but the adoption of such technology has been slow. People became fed up with the frustrations of telephone-based speech recognition systems and have been reluctant to try again with mobile devices.

But things are changing. The Amazon Echo was advertised at the Super Bowl. Apple has Cookie Monster showing off Siri’s timer feature. More people are getting comfortable with the idea of speaking to their phone. In a recent report by MindMeld, 45% of people who have used speech on their phones started in the last year alone. 62% of smartphone users are now using voice.

Speech recognition technology has improved dramatically in the last five years, but that’s only half the solution. Crafting a VUI that works well and helps users without leaving them frustrated still requires careful design. Designing VUIs requires principles that differ from designing GUIs, including the fact that (unlike when someone taps a button on their phone) you’re not always 100% certain what the user really said.

Cathy Pearl shares best practices for designing today’s VUIs, whether for mobile apps or home assistants like the Amazon Echo, and explores what “conversational” means and if it really matters when you’re just trying to help a user get something done.

You’ll leave with practices for designing VUIs you can put into place immediately, including confirmation strategies, how to deal with speech recognition failures, and tips for prototyping, disambiguation, and keeping track of conversational context.

Photo of Cathy Pearl

Cathy Pearl


Cathy Pearl is director of user experience at Sensely, whose virtual nurse avatar, Molly, helps people engage with their health. Cathy has more than 15 years of experience designing user interfaces and has worked on everything from helicopter pilot simulators at NASA to a conversational iPad app in which Esquire magazine’s style columnist tells you what you should wear on a first date. During her time at Nuance and Microsoft, Cathy designed voice user interfaces for banks, airlines, healthcare companies, and Ford SYNC. She is the author of the upcoming O’Reilly book Designing Voice User Interfaces. Cathy holds a BS in cognitive science from UCSD and an MS in computer science from Indiana University.

Cathy Pearl on the O'Reilly Design Podcast