Cheryl Platz on designing the Amazon Echo Look

The O'Reilly Design Podcast: Designing in secret, designing for voice, and why improv is an essential design skill.

By Nikki McDonald
July 13, 2017
Shh. Shh. (source: Luke McKernan on Flickr)

In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with Cheryl Platz, senior designer at Microsoft for the Azure Portal and Marketplaces. We talk about the challenges of working on a top-secret design project, the research behind Amazon’s Echo Look, the skills you need to start designing for voice, and how studying improv can make you a better designer.

Here are some highlights:

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The challenges of designing secret projects

The Windows Automotive project I worked on at Microsoft wasn’t fully ‘tented,’ but it was kind of hush-hush, so I thought I was prepared when I went to work at Amazon on the Echo Look. But this was…I had never experienced anything truly this secretive. As a designer, being cut off and unable to talk about what you’re working on cuts off a part of your process in a way that is a little disorienting. You cannot openly go to customers and ask them questions. You cannot openly go to other designers and ask them questions, and sometimes you can’t even ask general questions without causing some kind of curiosity or alarm. … You really need to get connected with whatever intrinsically motivates you because you’re not going to be able to go to critiques and get validation or support or insights from other designers, for the most part. You’re going to have to find other ways to gut check yourself to make sure you’re considering all perspectives to make sure you don’t have any blind spots. It certainly makes things a lot more challenging, and it creates a weird sort of career tension where you know you’re on the cutting edge of something and you can’t…tell…anyone.

Why voice assistants are all women

There’s some really good research that takes into account the way our gender perception influences our perception of digital assistants. … The fascinating thing was that there was cognitive dissonance when a gendered voice talked about a subject that was not perceived to be in that gender’s area of strength. For example, if you had a woman talking about the inventory at Home Depot, there was cognitive dissonance. If you had a man talking about fashion, that was cognitive dissonance. So, if you’re a company and you’re trying to release a product that’s going to be very disruptive and cause privacy concerns—and I did not work on the initial release of the Echo, so this is me talking on behalf of myself and not on behalf of any company—but my guess is that if you’re a company looking to make this really disruptive wave, you have to minimize cognitive dissonance elsewhere to get people to open their minds to a microphone in their home. For the American market—and the features that they planned for Alexa—Amazon knew Alexa would be used largely in the kitchen. Kitchen timers are super popular. Alarms. Household management stuff. I wish that we were just super gender neutral, but the fact of the market here is that cognitive dissonance exists. It’s real. So, if you have a home-oriented product in America, you kind of have to start with a female voice.

How studying improv makes you a better designer

Doing improv has a direct impact on how you handle conversations, how you approach problem solving, how you approach question-and-answer sessions at conferences. The more you study improv, the more you learn that the world is not full of right and wrong answers. There are a lot of different ways to answer a question. For example, when I’m at conferences and I get tough Q&A, that improv training, where there are just a number of ways to handle a situation—none of them are wrong. There is an answer. Just have faith in your ability to find it. And to listen. That’s the other thing. A lot of improv training is about listening to people, starting to understand their motivation—that’s a very valuable skill, and I will be the first to admit that early in my career, I was not great at listening. I wanted to be right. I was as guilty as the next person of waiting for the other person to finish speaking so I could speak. Improv helps you get past that.

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