Community Spotlight

Turning a Passion for Linguistics into a Voice Tech Career. Meet Brielle Nickoloff

Brielle Nickoloff is a Conversation Designer (CxD) and Product Manager with several years of experience creating compelling voice and chat experiences who is now focused on creating CxD tools for other designers. Read her story on how she turned her passion for Linguistics into a successful career and some of the lessons she’s learned along the way.

Name: Brielle Nickoloff

Location: N/A - Digital Nomad

What I Do: Product Manager @ Botmock, Conversation Designer (voice/chat)

How did you get started in voice tech and what are you currently working on?

It all started in high school when I first heard about linguistics. I was tasked to write a senior thesis and I was just so sick of writing about symbolism and all of that other stuff that you have to write about in high school literature classes. One day, I was doing some research and found out about this whole linguistics thing and just totally fell in love with it. I wrote a paper about color naming and how some linguists believe that, for all practical purposes, peoples’ mental models of colors are different depending on how many basic colors their native language names. Some languages name just two colors (dark/light), and some, like Russian, have two completely different names for dark blue and light blue, while in English, we obviously only have one name for ‘blue’. Finding out something like this just blew my mind and made me really want to dig deeper in college.

I started college with a minor in linguistics, but because I come from a very STEM-oriented family, my whole life I had always been focused on becoming a doctor. I felt that medicine was a very secure and obvious way to be successful so I got a neuroscience degree while on a pre-med for four years in college and kept a (somewhat secret) linguistics minor on the side. I kind of downplayed it to my parents and just told them not to worry about it, that it was just my hobby. Eventually, I had taken so many linguistics classes and racked so many Ling credits that it became a major practically without me realizing. Senior year came around and I was getting really stressed out about the idea of having to actually follow through with medicine. I was like, “is this actually going to be my life? I don't think I even really want this.”

At that time, I was actually taking a graduate linguistics seminar. I remember its focus being all about the function that profanity and profane words/phrases play in our culture and in other cultures. So, I wrote a paper about the types of profanity that people use with their voice assistants or their voice-enabled GPS systems in the car. I found that oftentimes those profane insults were gendered because most of our systems were female. For example, the types of names that people would call it (the voice assistant) were generally female associated terms versus a neutral term. This compelled me to look much deeper into how these systems are built and who's actually thinking about that kind of stuff. Which employees at Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant are designing and programming those systems to respond in one way or another to these insults?

I found that oftentimes those profane insults were gendered because most of our systems were female...This got me looking much deeper into how these systems are built and who's actually thinking about that kind of stuff.

This really just opened up a whole new field of exploration for me because Alexa was just getting big around that time. It also gave me a glimmer of hope that I could build a career around what I really love instead of going into medicine. Long story short, I started digging really hard after graduation and started reaching out to people who were working on Google Assistant on LinkedIn. I was asking for informational interviews about how they got into the space and what they were doing. That push led me to connect with my first boss, and that's how I started as a voice designer. I didn't ever expect to use linguistics for anything in my career. I was more or less trying to ignore my passion for that because I thought that I could never make money doing linguistic-related stuff. It’s hard to figure out what you actually love, and even when you do, it can be very scary to try to actually apply it to a viable career path.

So, I started as a voice designer. Because it was a really small startup I was also doing a lot of community building and advocacy around voice design. I was making a case for why businesses should start paying attention to voice and conversation design. I started to connect with other designers in the community and I started to realize that there really wasn't a tool that we all had available to actually design the way that we wanted to design. A lot of the tools were very technical still and obviously anyone has access to the Alexa Skills Kit or Dialogflow, but there wasn't anything yet that was made for the way conversation designers think. After realizing that, I started to get excited about getting involved in the tooling space. For me, it’s exciting to create a tool that enables Cx designers to design at the same rate that we think. Improvements in CxD tooling is one of the ways that I think the voice space will grow so much in the next few years. And that's currently what I'm working on. 😊 Right now, I'm trying to get feedback from everyone in the space about our tool (Botmock) to keep improving it. We want to make it the best possible voice and chatbot tool for teams.

...It’s exciting to create a tool that enables Cx designers to design at the same rate that we think. Improvements in CxD tooling is one of the ways that I think the voice space will grow so much in the next few years.

Do you have any tips or best practices on creating for voice?

When it comes to creating a voice experience, what I prioritize is the product thinking versus the design. It can be really tempting to want to jump right into writing sample scripts and tweaking the language and crafting it to fit a persona that you want your experience to reflect. But what I have really learned as a designer is that we have to take on the product side of things as well. Why voice is the best solution for any given experience. Would a user opt for getting that task done in another mode like an app or on a website? Critically thinking about the reason you are using a conversational interface to get something done is #1. Once you have vetted a use case and you've decided voice really is a great fit for it, figuring out the MVP version of what you're going to design is the next crucial step. It’s easy to get excited about potential features that you could build and get carried away with that. I personally always have to reel back my ideas and my excitement for building and say “what are the bare minimum features we're going to design and build in the first version that we're launching. What ideas are coming up right now that we can just save for V2, V3, etc?”

Hosting her workshop “A Brave New Voice-First World” at Interaction 2020, Milan, Italy.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you faced and obstacles that you've overcome in this industry?

If I had not had a boss who had been working on conversational design for years, I think it would have been really hard for me to actually understand how to get started with design and what that even means. If I'm not necessarily interested in the build aspect of it, what does that mean? Where does that put you? What does your role in that process look like? Even if you did find somebody to partner with and they were more interested in the coding and the building of it, it’s unclear. A lot of people reach out to me and say, “How do I actually start designing? What does that mean? What tools do I use?” What does it really mean to sit down and design something? If you're starting from scratch, what kinds of ideas are good for voice? It's hard to come up with good ideas that fit a voice UI. I think landing on a good CxD idea is a lot harder than, say, figuring out a good mobile app to design and build or web page or something like that.

What is your #1 resource for someone who is just getting started in conversational and voice design?

What helped me the most when I was just getting started was listening to podcasts from the experts and reading books. These both help to get familiar with the landscape to answer questions like “what are all of your options as a voice designer? What are all of the platforms you can even create for?” Here are some of my recommendations.

-Katherine Prescott’s Voicebrew Flash Briefing on Alexa is well-produced and gives you updates about everything you can do with an Alexa device. 

-Witlingo has a great Glossary of Voice First terms, Timeline of Voice, and other awesome resources

-Dave Kemp’s Future Ear Radio will get you up-to-date about what’s happening with voice technology and hearables

-Emily Binder’s podcast Beetle Moment Marketing will help you understand the business case behind voice technology, and so will Scot and Susan Westwater’s book

-Kane Simms podcast, VUX World is funny and informative.

-This Week in Voice by Bradley Metrock and The Voicebot Podcast by Bret Kinsella will get you up to speed quickly on the whole industry. 

-Botmock’s free webinars discuss topics like how to break into conversation design and conversation design techniques that practitioners on teams actually use

If you have a healthy diet of these resources it'll be easy for you to get up to speed with everything voice people are thinking about on a day-to-day basis. 

What are your goals for 2020?

One of my main goals for this year is supporting the CxD community in new ways and creating more awareness about what it truly means to be a conversation designer. Who are the people not just talking about it all the time, but actually doing it? Those are the people I'm trying to bring into these panels. We are at a very interesting point right now in technology in general, where it's been very tech focused up to this point and now we're starting to really see a huge need for people thinking about ethics and morals and how we can build sustainable, inclusive, and accessible experiences with this technology.

One of my goals for this year is to raise awareness about the path towards building a career in conversation design and to build a community for anyone in that boat. If my work can help five people understand how they can apply what they've studied or what they've been doing in their career and apply that to a career in conversation design, if that's what they're truly interested in, then I feel like I would have had a successful year. Hopefully we can far exceed that but yeah, I think back to my own despair at not knowing how I could ever make money doing what I love, learning about language and not knowing how to apply it. I just want people to know that if they aren't technical and don't want to become technical, they can still play a huge role in this field and their talents are very much needed.

How do you see the voice industry evolving in the next five years?

In the next five years, I hope that there's a more distinct delineation between all of the roles on any conversational product team. Whether that's a product manager, the researcher, the designers, or the types of designers. Are you a designer that focuses on the content or the copywriting? Are you a designer that focuses on the overall architecture of the conversation? I am hopeful that over the next five years, given that so many companies are actually building teams around conversational products now, that teasing out the skill sets required for each role will be a much higher priority. I think by doing that, we'll be able to more clearly message to everyone what the opportunities are in this space, how they differ from each other and how your own background and your passion can fit into one or even a few of those different roles. 

Along those lines, given what I'm seeing right now with the design tooling space and the development tooling options, I think that we will have an all-in-one tool we’ll be using in five years. I hope that researchers on the team will be able to use the conversational prototyping tool and they'll have their own things that they look for, then the product manager will be able to track everything within that tool, the designers can use it to define the persona and actually write out the architecture/collaborate on different prompts that they might be thinking about. And then we'll also have a very easy and seamless developer handoff. That's what I envision. I think all of the tools in this space are on this track and we're only going to get better at it.

Where can we go to learn more?

I would recommend joining Voice Devs. I think it's an awesome community and there are really great questions being posed and great conversations being had. I also love in the Voice Devs community how you have a “roles” section where you can see people with the different titles like, voice actor, conversation designer, and VUI developer. I think that is so crucial in differentiating between the different parts of the process that people contribute to. Right now it's just a big blob where conversation design and development seems like one in the same and that's just not true. So I love that you have put that in there.

There are just so many people out there collecting different libraries of conversation design resources. I have a colleague named Carol who has created one of these libraries on notion. I would also recommend that if you have a design portfolio and you're looking to add conversation design projects in there or you want just a completely dedicated conversation design portfolio, you check out the portfolio review session that Botmock is hosting where you can get feedback on your own and provide feedback to others. 

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Jonathan Porter
Community Manager @ Voice Devs
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