Category Archives: Interface

Solving the page down problem

Whenever I talk to people who use speech commands to control a computer I encourage them to complain. Something that frequently comes up is it’s a drag having to say “page down” so much.

We’ve come up with several ways to diminish the drag:

1. Several screens at once

First, “Page” is a back-of the-mouth word, which is more difficult to say than words that only use sounds that originate in the front of the mouth. This isn’t a problem for commands you don’t use frequently, but looms large when you have to repeat something over and over again.

And when you say “Page Down”, you’re really moving by screen, not by page. This is fortunate, because “Screen” is easier to say than “page”.

Using Utter Command you can say “Page Down” and “Page Up” to hit the page up and page down keys, but you can also say “Screen Down” and “Screen Up”. And you can move multiple screens: “2 Screen Down”, “5 Screen Up”

2. Right to the point

You can also go to a given screen. “Screen 3”, for instance, jumps you right to the third screen of information in a document.

And in programs whose Find facilities recognize page numbers, including pdf’s, you can go right to a given page by saying, for instance, “Find Page 22”. You can try this out on a UC lesson document: “UC Lesson 1”.

3. Wait

It’s still tedious to say “Screen Down” every couple of seconds when you want to glance quickly at subsequent pages. Try this: “3 Screen Down Wait 5”. This moves down a screen, waits 5 seconds, moves down another screen, waits 5 seconds, then moves down another screen.

4. The right tool for the job

It’s also important to look at exactly why you’re going through a document screen by screen. Often you’re looking through pages for a certain section. In this case the screen-by-screen facility isn’t the right tool for the job, but you may be using it because usually it’s the best tool available.

If you’re looking through a document that has numbers, letters or symbols to differentiate sections you can use the UC Keywords facility go directly to any of these. To see what I mean say “Find 1 Period”, “Find 3 Period” in this document. Now picture a longer document with more and longer sections, and a section outline along these lines:

1. Speech Command Problems
1.1 Page Down
1.2 Page Down Solution

2. Speech Command

You could say, for example “Find 1 Period”, “Find 1 Point 1”, “Find 1 Point 2” and “Find 2 period” to jump among these sections.

Using the UC Keyword list you can use any section organization scheme you want — numbers, letters, numbers and letters (1a., 1b….) or heading words themselves (“Find Introduction”, “Find Summary”). Sometimes I put tildas (~) at key points in a document so I can jump to those points (“Find Tilde”). I also use the word “PLACEHOLDER” this way (“Find Placeholder”).

You can also use “Wait” with keywords. I use this one to scan a document for placeholders: “Find Placeholder Wait 2 Repeat 5”.

Speeding search by speech

Keyboard shortcuts are powerful tools for the speech interface because they work across all programs and they can be combined — you can say several keyboard shortcuts in one phrase to speed things up.

This is why we encourage all software makers to make all features available via keyboard shortcuts.

Google is experimenting with adding keyboard shortcuts to search results. Here are the experimental keyboard shortcuts:

Command Action
Letter J Selects next result
Letter K Selects previous result
Enter (or Letter O) Opens selected result
Slash Moves cursor to search box
Escape Moves cursor to results

And here’s how to speed things up further with Utter Command combinations:

Command Action
Letter J · Enter Opens next result
Letter K · Enter Opens previous result
J Times 1-100 Moves down 1-100 and selects result
K Times 1-100 Moves up 1-100 and selects result
J Times 1-100 · Enter Moves down 1-100 and opens result
K Times 1-100 · Enter Moves up 1-100 and opens result
Escape · Enter Moves cursor to results and opens

To try these out

1. Go to the Google experimental page
2. Under the Keyboard Shortcuts heading click “Join Experiment”
3. Go to regular Google search or Advanced Google search, type a query, then try the shortcuts on the results.

As long as you’re logged in you’ll be able to use these shortcuts in the regular and advanced Google search pages.

Note: the Join Experiment button uses cookies. If your browser is set to remove all cookies at the end of a session and you want to retain this setting add to your exceptions list (Firefox: Tools/Options/Privacy/Exceptions; Internet Explorer: Tools/Options/Privacy/Sites).

Talking to your telephone vs. talking to your computer

The SpeechTEK speech conference has a lot to say about the state of the desktop speech interface. The exhibits in and 2006 and 2007 were largely about where all the speech interface action is these days — not on the desktop, but over the telephone with interactive voice response (IVR) systems.

I went to several sessions aimed at the voice user interface designers (Vuids) who construct telephone speech command interfaces (even though I’m something of an imposter as a desktop voice user interface designer — I guess Dvuid would be the appropriate term).

We’re dealing with a lot of the same issues, though often with different twists:

  • Making sure people know what to say and stay oriented in the system
  • Accommodating beginners and experienced users
  • Making the process as fast and efficient as possible so people won’t hit the operator button or hang up (or not use the software — many people who buy desktop speech recognition software end up not using it)
  • In both cases the communications relationship is between a person and machine

And we’re looking at similar answers:

  • Making commands consistent
  • Avoiding ambiguity
  • Doing user testing
  • Thinking about configuring information in a certain order to make it more memorable (good mental maps and appropriate training wheels)
  • And above all avoiding the trap of thinking that people can just say anything because even if you truly could just say anything you still don’t know what to say

I’ve also been thinking about the differences between IVR and the desktop speech interface — these differences make the challenges more difficult or easier for each of the systems.

  • Desktop users tend to follow a more predictable curve — they get more experienced or drop it, while for some IVR systems you have occasional users.
  • People are more often forced to use IVR, while most people can easily avoid the desktop speech interface if they wish.
  • The desktop is capable of both visual and audio feedback, while IVR systems tend to only have audio feedback. (Interestingly, even though most speech engines come with the ability to speak, desktop computer interfaces generally don’t use this feedback channel. We’ve had positive results in user testing of judicious use of audio feedback.)
  • Both systems suffer from the widespread use of pseudo natural language. Natural language doesn’t really exist on either type of system and trying to fake natural language creates its own problems.

Outside the mouse and keyboard box

Here’s an attempt to explain the potential of the speech interface.

Controlling a computer using a mouse and keyboard is a very specific type of control, and for many years it was all we knew. This type of control still defines how we think about communicating with computers.

While it’s good to tap existing knowledge, it’s important not to let experience confine new methods of communication.

The way today’s speech interfaces work, speech commands often follow in the footsteps of the keyboard and mouse (“File”, “Open”, “Budget”, “Enter”) rather than tapping the full potential of speech (“Budget Folder”).

Think about the differences between road travel and air travel.

A plane goes faster than a car, so following a road from the air is faster than driving, and following roads might not be a bad idea at first to get your bearings. But the real power of air travel is the ability to travel any route, including over areas inaccessible by car like large bodies of water, mountain ranges and polar regions.

The Human-Machine Grammar that underpins Utter Command is aimed at mapping the best way to use speech to control the computer. The real power of speech is the ability to command the computer in ways not possible using the keyboard and mouse.

Here’s another metaphor:

In the days when cars that went 15 miles an hour were cutting-edge, this seemed fast — four times faster than walking and you didn’t have to expend energy. It may seem like working on a computer is fast today. It’s not. Speech has the potential to take us into another realm in terms of productivity.