Name: Maaike Groenewege
What I Do: Conversation Designer & Coach
How did you get started in voice tech and what are you currently working on?
I'm currently working as a conversation designer. I actually started as an independent contractor in February this year, so being my own boss is all relatively new. I've been working on conversational interfaces a bit longer, somewhere around the start of 2019, and I was immediately really enthusiastic and hyped up about it. But before that, I already had a career.
My career goes way back to the early 2000s when I graduated from university as a linguist. Linguistics, sound, and how language works in terms of sound and voice is really something I love exploring. Unfortunately, at the time there wasn't a job market for people like me. Instead, I ended up becoming a technical writer for lots of companies. I started out with really small software companies and I ended up working as a tech writer for the Dutch Air Traffic Control. It's interesting because technical writing is not really that technical. It's basically about helping people achieve complex tasks and solving complex problems.
How people work, how their behavior works, and how their minds work has always been one of my passions. I've been literally sitting next to air traffic controllers observing what they do and what they need in terms of information. I really enjoyed myself there, but you know, after like 14-15 years you're like “is that it?” I said to myself, perhaps it’s time to move on. Then I started a journey as a business analyst, then an information analyst, and started designing software. I liked it, but I was still missing something. I missed really helping people in a more direct way.
In 2019, when I discovered chatbots and voice assistants I was like, “whoa, this is where everything just comes together.” It's linguistics. It's Human Centered Design. It's content. It's really helping people. And what's really cool is that they're actually asking the questions in their own words, which for me as a manual writer is heaven because you finally know the questions that you need to answer. So, I started working on bots and exploring everything there was to explore, learning everything I could, and now here I am currently working for the Dutch Chamber of Commerce on their chatbot and coaching their new chatbot team and I’m loving it.
In 2019, when I discovered chatbots and voice assistants I was like, “whoa, this is where everything just comes together.” It's linguistics. It's Human Centered Design. It's content. It's really helping people.
Do you have any tips or best practices on creating for voice?
Voice is not really taking off right now in the Netherlands so I guess that's my first tip in voice design - to make sure that you actually have a platform that supports your language. At the moment, we only have Google Assistant. When you design for voice, it's extremely important that you take a voice-first approach. You need to step away from the idea that you're designing text or content because you're not - you're designing speech, you're designing conversations, especially when you work with a visual interface. If you design your flow charts in the flow charter it's very tempting to think “oh, that's it, I'm done.” And then you kind of missed the point of voice because voice is not written text, it's dialogue. So always, always, always start with dialogue with your colleagues or with your actual customers. In every step of the way, make sure that you do a spoken check, a spoken review, and embed that in your process.
Since you have experience with both, what are some of the benefits and negatives of voice vs text?
Because I work in the service domain, some of the answers tend to be quite complex. Even if you Jenga them down all the way down to the bare minimum, there is still a certain kind of logic or instructional steps that often need to be followed. In some cases, it's really nice if you have a visual interface next to your conversation so that you have some kind of reference. On the other hand, if you look at, for instance, aviation in which I worked for a long time, the main procedure tool that pilots and air traffic controllers use is a checklist and that's a call and response principle. I think it will be really interesting to see how a voice assistant could help there and you already see that influence in the medical domain. You can actually use a voice assistant to have a checklist that's ready made which can help you with laying out your operation theater or to help you with procedures that might be more complex. It very much depends on the use case and obviously, the main advantage of voice is that you can talk. The main disadvantage of voice is that you need to talk. Right now speech recognition, for me, is a bit of a scary thing when I have to use it in an environment that has a security risk, a safety component, or when the stakes are high. In those instances, it's nice to have a fallback in text.
I haven't worked with voice at air traffic control but for example, at one of the voice lunches we talked with Brian - a commercial candidate astronaut. He said, one of the reasons why we don't use voice interfaces in a spaceship is because when it goes wrong, it's really hard to repair. In aviation and aerospace you need triple redundancy on everything. Voice might be a bit too fickle for that kind of situation. He was very down to earth and we were all like, “well, that's funny actually for an astronaut.” But we were thinking of all these brilliant use cases for voice in space and he was like, well, a button is faster. And we were like, come on...Star Trek! It will be interesting to see how much of what we think of now will actually become reality in the future. I still have high hopes and I still want to order my coffee by saying “coffee please” and then it just magically appears.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you faced and obstacles that you've overcome in this industry?
I've worked as a regular employee in big companies for most of my career and I always thought I was fine until I actually decided to quit and start my own business. I find that I'm now able to actually realize so much more of my potential. I guess some of that had to do with the expectations that a company might have of you, and how perhaps creativity and nonlinear thinking are sometimes difficult when you have all these fixed organizational paths that you need to follow. If you don't kind of fit in it can be hard.
In terms of conversation design, you start out with an idea of what conversation design is. Well, I didn't even know that there was such a thing as a conversation designer. Coming from a technical writer background, I saw it very much as an extension of existing task and user based support systems, like manuals or contextual help. And that, together with my love of learning new things, made it a very joyful path to explore.
However, I guess that if you come to the field with an expectation of “this is the road to becoming a conversation designer and these are the steps I need to take and then I will have such and such a position within a company.” That's just not going to happen, because most companies are not even aware that they need conversation designers and that they need people to make their bots more efficient, easy to use, and conversational. It's a very new thing. For me, it's really exciting because we're really at the forefront of something big that's definitely about to happen and already happening. But it's not like you go to college, you take x and y courses and then you're done and can start working. Not yet, at least. It's really reinventing yourself almost on a weekly basis, because technological development goes like crazy. It's something you have to like, and you’ll need to get comfortable with learning new stuff and not being afraid to make mistakes and say “Oh, well, this wasn't it - let's do something else.”
What are your recommended resources for someone who is just getting started in conversational and voice design?
There are a whole bunch of wonderful communities, Voice Devs, of course being one of them. I would also like to mention voice lunch, which is amazing because you can just walk in there and find Brett Kinsella having his lunch or lots of the other big names in voice. They actually drop by and say hello and everybody there is really open to sharing knowledge and welcoming to new conversation designers. Brielle Nickoloff and I actually started a special VoiceLunch Language and Linguistics edition, so if you’re passionate about language, make sure to join there.
Then of course there's women in voice which is especially wonderful in terms of creating a safe space for women, minority genders, and people who identify with the female gender. I founded the Dutch chapter a year ago, and there’s chapters all over the world. In our Dutch chapter, we welcome men as well as women to our meetups, but just having this space where all speakers and organisers, and most of the community are female, it's a different dynamic, and that's lovely.
There's some wonderful courses of course, the Robocopy conversation design certification is definitely your go to place if you're not already a copywriter and want to learn those skills. Platforms have their own tutorials. There's the Voice UX course. There's plenty of them. On Google, obviously Cathy Pearl, she's a guru. So start there and everything will work out all right. People are always welcome to get in touch with me for 15 minute coffee chats and some motivational talk because I'm convinced that's the thing that most people need. It's not more knowledge or more technical skills or anything is just the belief that you can do it.
What's your advice for somebody who's just getting started in this industry?
Oh, that's without a doubt just create your own bot. It doesn't matter how complex or how easy it is. Just go to any platform, create your own bots - take a template and make it work and then use that as your learning project. Then each week, take on a little extra task, set yourself a small goal, like okay, perhaps your first bot is like a button bot where you just click and have your fixed path, that's fine. As long as your copy is conversational, that's conversational as heck. Conversational doesn't have to equal AI, right? Not always. Then next time, perhaps insert an intent and see what it does if you can get all the utterances. By taking all these small steps within like two months, you're already on the road and on your way to... actually you are a conversation designer, if you build bots. Also, don't be afraid to ask people for help. People are very helpful and welcoming in this industry so don't be afraid to actually take your space because everybody deserves their own space and we all started somewhere.
The one platform that I always refer people to when they just start out is Engati. It's from India and their user interface is just really nice and friendly. They've got great tutorials and there's not a lot that can go wrong there. There's some pretty decent NLP in there as well if you want to do your AI bots. Then of course Voiceflow, which is definitely my go to for voice design.
What are your goals for the rest of 2020?
My goal is to work just enough. To not have to worry about my bills too much and have as much time as I want to just explore everything I want to explore. Fortunately, the two things are actually kind of mixed right now because my current assignment is just wonderful - I work with a great team. But my goal is just to enjoy myself and not be bothered too much and really savor the idea that I'm actually my own boss now so, hey I can do what I want!
How do you see the voice industry evolving in the next five years?
My perspective is from the Netherlands and we don't have Alexa yet. Google is the main player here and if you look at the actions that the Dutch voice community has live right now. I mean, there's a few good ones, but we're literally talking about 10s, not hundreds let alone thousands like in English speaking countries. So on the one hand, that might mean that we're still at the very start of something really big that is about to explode and that would mean that we can still have a big influence on how, when, and where we are going. We can really shape the direction of voice in the Netherlands.
But what I also see, and what worries me is that perhaps the smart speaker hype might be over before it has appropriately begun over here, because smart speakers for me, they really they only really work when we have high quality content. When we have the variety that you see in the States or in England, Germany, and Spain. Right now, there’s just one big player in the market and no real incentive to go to that next level. I mean, yes, there are definitely parties in the Netherlands like Smartvoices and Greenhouse. There's actually a few voice agencies in the Netherlands but I don’t think any of them is voice-only yet.
What I do feel is that we need some open source initiatives to counteract the locked in state that we're in now. It's been interesting to see that in Germany, for instance, there's now the Deutsche Telekom voice assistant and smart speaker. It actually has two assistants - Alexa and magenta. I think that will be a very interesting development from a European point of view, because there's so many languages, let alone the dialect and the accents. It's the same for the States too - East Coast states have a different accent from the West Coast. So, I think we have a lot to do in terms of diversity when it comes to voice and being aware that we don't exclude entire countries or even continents from this digital environment that's going to be much more invasive in the coming years. If the Internet of Things is really going to fly, then it needs to fly in all languages, not just English or Spanish.
Mozilla has an open-source voice project where you can contribute your voice and they actually do a stellar job in the Netherlands. We actually have another official language here which is Frisian and they started a voice project just for that. We're also investigating whether they will be able to provide some proper Dutch NLP for an open source voice pipeline.
Where can we go to learn more?
Well, I'm really happy to announce that I can finally refer English speaking people to my website because I translated it to English and you'll find my bio there. I'll be adding articles to my blog, as well as on Medium publication which is Maaike from Convocat.nl. I'm also a regular at the Tuesday voice lunch edition. And finally, LinkedIn is my main communication channel - that's where I do all the announcements and stuff.
Connect with Maaike