Moving from speech recognition to voice recognition

"Hello, computer."

"Hello, computer."

Conversational Design has (almost) arrived. Voice commands as input device are everywhere. People use it to control their smartphone. Amazon Echo is a success. Speaking offers a speed-to-task completion that beats typing.

And right now it is easily undone by a toddler.

That’s my two-year-old daughter, Avery. She is a typical, boisterous and full-of-energy toddler. When I attempt to use voice commands – to draft a text message, search for a Doc McStuffins YouTube video through Apple TV, whatever – she invariably talks over me. Loudly. And then whatever device I’m using fails miserably.

Speech recognition software has gotten much better recently and so we’re starting to realize the benefits of speaking to our devices. We can all speak faster than we can type. This creates efficiency in how we long it takes us to complete a task. But for this to work, it requires a quiet space.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how it will look (er, I mean sound) when we are all talking to our devices. It will get quite loud. The workplace will need to change. We will need to have more privacy to work - to speak with and to our computers. This may, or may not be practical (workspace being a pricey expense). The open space floor plans of most offices will be rejiggered out of necessity to accommodate conversational interfaces.

Out of the office - commuting, traveling, at home, wherever - I see two continuing problems with interacting with our devices. The first is societal. We frown on people talking in public, whether it be on the train, in an elevator, or waiting in line. We consider it rude when the individual vocally intrudes on the group.

Working on this post while riding commuting to work. Yes, I get to ride a ferry every day.

Working on this post while riding commuting to work. Yes, I get to ride a ferry every day.

The second continuing problem is technology. Our devices need to identify not just the words being spoken, but whom is speaking them. Until they can lock in on the user's voice to the exclusion of all other voices, the interface will continue to fail us. It needs to understand that I'm issuing commands and not be distracted by Avery practicing the Happy Birthday song.

That should be the goal. Getting devices to go from speech recognition to actual voice recognition. When that happens, maybe we'll have something.

On the Essential Sameness that Is Competition

Peter Thiel, Courtesy Getty Images

Peter Thiel, Courtesy Getty Images

Just listened to a talk given by Peter Thiel on the “How to Start a Startup” podcast. You can find it on iTunes here. Definitely take the time to listen if you’re interested in starting a company.

Thiel believes that the success of a company is determined by a simple formula:

“For a business to be valuable, two things must be true: you create X dollars of value for the world. You capture Y percent of X.”

X (the size of the market) doesn’t have to necessarily be huge if you capture a large enough percentage of it. He compares the airline industry to online search. Domestic air travel accounts for $195B in revenue annually. Google brings in $50B annually. The search market isn’t much bigger than Google’s share. So which company would you want to be: Google or American Airlines?

 He argues that the goal of every founder/CEO is to establish a monopoly. Do something different from everyone else, go after a niche market and own it. Then expand to related areas, increasing your dominance. Or to put it another way, Amazon started out as an online bookstore. This lead him to another great line: 

“All happy companies are different because they are doing something very unique; all unhappy companies are alike because they fail to escape the essential sameness that is competition.”

He’s repurposing a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

 “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 

I enjoyed Thiel’s talk. He made a lot of great points and expanded his counterintuitive argument that you should not hope for competition but avoid it. Go check it out.



Bad Ad Experiences (part II)

In a recent post I wrote about how poorly designed ads negatively impact the experience users have when visiting a site (and why brands seem to ignore this). Sometimes though, paid advertising can actually undercut a point you’re trying to make.

Slate recently published this post about how Donald Trump’s personal attack on Ted Cruz’s wife signaled a new low for the candidate and the presidential campaign. Its point is pretty clear: attacking Cruz’s wife was purely misogynistic and so far beyond the pale of responsible debate (Slate has written several posts like this about Trump, such as this one that states his only consistent position is misogyny).

And then you get to the bottom of the post.

In the same post is a “promoted story” from LifeDaily entitled “20 Things You Should Know About Donald Trump’s Wife.” Kind of undercuts that point Michelle Goldberg and Slate are trying to make. 

The Trump’s wife “story” is obviously clickbait, so I’m not including a link to it. But Slate is taking the money from Outbrain (the company responsible for serving up the promoted stories). It’s a bit jarring for users to read a post about how wrong it is to gossip and attack a candidate’s wife, and then see an ad on the same site that is doing the same thing to the offending candidate’s wife.

Take care what ads you serve up content sites.

Bad (Ad) Experiences

I’ve been using the Yahoo Weather! app for a while now. It leverages flickr to serve up beautiful geo-tagged photographs that match the location and (roughly) the current weather. It’s beautiful and evocative.

Beautiful, right? And then you scroll down and see this ad:

Not so beautiful. I have always wondered why so many companies rarely consider the ad that’s placed in an app. They do realize that the user experiences the ad along with the rest of the page and doesn’t separate the two? Or to state this more clearly:

Users experience the ads you place on your site along with the rest of your site. They don’t separate the experience of one from the other.

This is intuitive, or at least it should be. Bad ad experiences contribute negatively to how users feel about the sites serving them up. It would seem that it is in the site’s best interest to improve the ads and thus improve the overall site experience.

Or (try) to take a look at The Atlantic.

Basically you can see the site navigation (this is actually an article detail page) and that’s about it. Ads everywhere else.  The Atlantic is a highly regarded publication with great writing and high editorial standards. Someone spent a lot of money designing a website to match the style and caliber of the print magazine. And then they mucked it all up with ads that have little connection to the magazine’s brand.

I’m not against advertising or the need to place ads on sites and apps that offer free content. But it seems strange that a company doesn’t care how off-style an ad might be placed within their otherwise impeccably designed site. It’s jarring.

What I’m asking for is that companies avoid the garish. And there’s certainly a way to do it. Take the biggest provider of advertising on their site: Google. Ads are everywhere. But the ads don’t intrude and look out of place.

Ads are necessary and important (they help keep the lights on, and content free). But this shouldn’t be at the expense of the user’s enjoyment of a site.

Please: consider the design and style of the ads you place on your site.


Conversational Design: An App(s) Review

I recently came across a couple of new apps that utilize conversational design. Each focused on solving a different need. So I decided to experiment with them and share what I found. The apps are:

  • QUARTZ -  a news app:   iOS  |  (Android is being developed)
  • HOUND - a digital assistant:   iOS  |  Android



Quartz mobile is the new app from the same-named news site. The interface replicates a chat window. When the user opens the app, headlines appear as new messages and after each one, the user can opt to learn more or see what’s next (it also often employs emoji in the “learn more” choice).

The nod to conversational design is obvious, and also fake. Currently, the user cannot ask Quartz for information on a particular topic. You can’t ask Quartz, “Tell me what’s breaking news in Boston?” for example. Quartz is effectively a slow scrolling newsfeed, without opportunity to either direct or personalize it. This is release 1, so it’s possible that functionality is coming (it becomes immediately more interesting if it does). It’s possible that it is learning more about the user based on the headlines they show interest in, but it is not immediately evident.

You can watch a TechCrunch review of Quartz here



Hound is meant to be a Siri competitor. It’s onboarding is effective, asking the user to say specific questions, each one demonstrating a different capability of the app. I suspect that at the same time it is calibrating the app to the user’s speaking pattern. I’m not sure of this, but if it is a brilliant approach to teaching the user how to use the app while also making app setup simple.

If you want to learn about the current weather – either in your current location or somewhere else entirely, this app works smoothly. Contact integration is impressive. Saying a contact’s name brings that information up immediately. Saying “Text [contact name]” also works as expected. It does not however support email integration.

Hound also integrates iTunes so requesting a song usually results in success (if you don’t own it, you’ll get only the free sample through the service). It also has Uber integration.

I found voice recognition worked well, better than Siri. Where I struggled was not knowing all of the possible commands for Hound. When it doesn’t recognize a specific trigger in your question, the result is a google search for the exact phrase you spoke. While this can certainly be frustrating, it’s worth noting that in all instances it searched for the exact phrase or sentence I uttered. In other words, it’s speech recognition worked well. I’d like to see additional functionality added to the app, such as shopping. Hound will likely continue to grow in features as they improve the app.

Read a TechCrunch review of Hound here.

To start (a company)

I want to start my own company. I want to develop a product based on my own BIG IDEA, form a company around it, hire people to my cause. I want build something. 

I think about this often. There are several ideas for products, all somewhat related to a general theme. Not necessarily a specific BIG IDEA, but something or several things.

I don’t have any cofounders to help me. I certainly don’t have any tech founder friends to lean on and write code. My skill is lacking here. I recognize that as a definite obstacle. I do have a mental list of people I would like to ask.

Dilbert, by Scott Adams. Thanks to  @lipmanb  for tweeting it.

Dilbert, by Scott Adams. Thanks to @lipmanb for tweeting it.

I really do think often about starting my own company. I don’t think this makes me different from a lot of people. Rather, I suspect a LOT of people out there daydream similarly to me. Beyond the obstacles I tongue-in-cheek outlined above, I consider the real risks of taking such a chance:



I have two daughters – Avery who’s 2 and Lucy who’s just 6 months. Coming home to them at night is amazing, and exhausting. They command my full attention before and after work, and on the weekends. How could I devote the often stated 100% focus to my potential startup while maintaining my commitment to my family? I actually took heart in a recent post by Rob Gonzalez, CEO and cofounder of Salsifywhere he talks about the balance between founding a startup and personal life. Interestingly he talks about the advantage of parents in this environment – they have focus because they need to be. This theme was similarly espoused by Paul Graham of Y Combinator in his talk "The Counterintuitive Parts of Startups, and How to Have Ideas." Listen to the Podcast. But let’s be honest: I’ve never started a startup and everyone always talks about how much time must be devoted to it. Am I just cherry-picking the the advice I want to hear?



I have a good job and get paid well for it. There is some reward in the work I do. Kids are expensive. How can I responsibly risk my income on such an unknowable endeavor? Losing my income for however long would put a huge burden on our family. And who knows when I would start to take in any pay, let alone match my current salary. If this is an ego – or selfish – leap to indulge personal wishes I will have failed in my primary responsibility as husband and father.


NOT IN MY twenties

I’ve been out of my 20s for a while. That’s when you’re supposed to try your hand at starting a company, right? Sure I have more experience now than when I was younger, but I have more responsibilities (see reasons above). What would I be giving up to make this happen? If it doesn’t work out (and the statistics say a startup is likely to fail), what damage might I be doing to my professional career? Am I setting myself back a few rungs? I don’t have an answer to this.

There are many reasons why starting my own company is a bad idea. Again, this realization makes me like many, many other people. We all want to be the boss. We all want to do great things. We see only success, and not failure. With all of that, I still hope to start a company one day. I don’t know when that will be. And I don’t know what it will be. Obviously I don’t know if it will be, but I’m hopeful.

Maybe as a dream, it can never fail.


We're Going to Be Alright

Today is Super Tuesday. Election day! This morning I dropped my daughters off at daycare and then went to vote. I took a later boat (I commute to work on a ferry – it’s awesome). While waiting to leave the dock, a lady sat down next to me: “Oh look, you’ve already voted! I need to do that.” She had seen my “I Voted Today!” sticker on my jacket.

We talked about whether there was a wait at the polls (there wasn’t) and what time they closed (we thought it was 7pm; turns out it’s 8pm). She was excited about doing her civic duty, and said she would vote later that night.

Once in the city I headed to Starbucks, as I do every morning. Stepping up to the barista, a big smile came over her face: “You just reminded me!” she spread her arms in a happy, excited manner, “I almost forgot; need to go vote today.”

She then took my order – a grande iced coffee and a blueberry muffin. She comped me the muffin (thank you!).

Watching the news we tend to get the impression that all things are dire and serious foul things are afoot. The other side hates us and will lead us to ruin. Conservatives and Liberals should just form their own countries away from each other. It’s pretty dire.

It struck me today how happy people were to be voting. No one asked “Whom are you voting for?” No one tried to influence anyone else. I felt a genuine sense of community among everyone I interacted with today. This is not the feeling one gets following election coverage.

I have nothing profound to say about all of this. I just wanted to note that I felt kinship with my fellow Americans today and that is a good thing. Despite all the doom and gloom that always leads, I think the country is filled with good, well-meaning people. We’re going to be alright.

If you haven’t yet, go vote. 

Coin and 10x Better

Last weekend I was out to dinner with my wife. An older couple at the table next to us was brought their bill and when the waitress returned, the husband pulled out his wallet.

From his wallet he pulled out two credit cards – one a Coin card and the other a regular credit card. The gentleman explained that he would like her to try the Coin card first, but that he also anticipated problems.