Over the past few years, more and more people have been adding voice assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant to their homes and using them on their smartphones.
The most popular way to use these assistants is to ask questions - and we know users often expect to find answers from government. So we decided to put together a small team to look at how to meet this emerging need on GOV.UK.
Why voice assistants matter for GOV.UK
Smart speaker ownership is growing rapidly in the UK - 8% of adults now own one, up 3% in 2018 so far. In 2016 Google reported 20% of searches on Android devices were voice searches.
The leading voice platforms do not share data on user’s specific queries, but conversations we’ve had with teams at Amazon and Google made it clear that many users are asking questions where government is the best source.
Voice interfaces are nothing new for many people with access needs, who might use software like Dragon Naturally Speaking. But there's much excitement in the accessibility community about voice assistants. Their dramatically simpler interface has the potential to help lots of people who find computers and phones hard to use right now.
For GOV.UK, working on voice is an opportunity to meet the rising expectations of users and make government more accessible.
Tackling voice at scale
As government we need to approach voice services in a consistent way.
The recent GDS Innovation Survey has shown many local authorities, agencies and government departments are already exploring how to they can use voice to deliver information and services.
So in keeping with government’s design principles GOV.UK’s approach to this needs to be:
Our team had experience creating apps and skills for voice assistants, but we wanted to find out if it was possible to support all the major voice platforms without having to build apps for each one.
Starting with the answers
We started by getting to grips with the different ways voice services provide users with answers.
We found there are three sources of information they use:
- search engines – these scan the web to provide relevant links and speakable snippets of content
- knowledge engines – these use a combination of data and computation to provide answers to fact-based questions
- third-party applications – known as skills on Alexa and Cortana, every major voice platform now has an app store
Here’s how it works for some of the most popular voice assistants:
|Search engine||Third-party applications||Knowledge engine|
& Siri Knowledge
|Evi & Alexa
This analysis helped us realise we could increase the number of answers we provide in voice assistants simply by making it easier for search and knowledge engines to use GOV.UK as a data source.
Making GOV.UK more understandable to search engines
Because we publish on the open web and prioritise good content design, GOV.UK guidance is already a source of speakable answers on some voice platforms.
This works because search engines crawl our content and use machine learning to extract speakable answers. You can see it in action in this Google Assistant demo we made:
But we realised there was more we could do. By using the schema.org structured data standard we can give search engines extra context to help make sense of our pages.
This quarter we implemented:
- Article schema for all guidance on GOV.UK
- NewsArticle schema for all news on GOV.UK
- HowTo schema for our new step-by-step journeys
There are also wider implications for our content strategy that we will need more time to think through. We already write content with all the clarity, natural language and brevity we can, but good spoken answers require even more. For example, Amazon recommend a voice answer be speakable in just one breath.
With this in mind we plan to:
- double down on open publishing, ensuring guidance isn’t hidden in services
- improve our use of structured data to make our content more understandable to search engines
- integrate (even more) concise answers into our guidance
Getting GOV.UK data into knowledge engines
Where search engines scan the web to find answers, knowledge engines use databases of known facts to work them out.
We think the most powerful way to help users of voice assistants is to make the canonical data that government publishes available in a format which knowledge engines can use to provide answers.
We’re currently talking to some of the major knowledge engines to understand the easiest standards-based way for them to use the data published on GOV.UK via an API.
We already have an API for Content on GOV.UK, but it does not provide the detailed structure that knowledge engines need. So a few weeks ago we began a small experiment and created a new API that provides a limited set of highly structured content.
We’ll let you know the results of the experiment after it’s concluded.
The current limitations of voice apps and skills
You might have noticed we’ve focused on being able to answer questions. We have not mentioned transactions with government - things like making a benefit claim or booking a driving test. This is because at the moment voice interfaces do not really have any way for us to handle:
- data privacy – many voice services hold records of conversations
- verifying identity – many government services require a high level of identity assurance
- inputting personal data – even inputting a full address at the moment can be awkward
These are significant blockers for many government transactions. But we’ll continue to keep a close eye on the voice landscape, and hopefully as the technology improves we'll start to see some new features and cross-platform standards in these areas.
What the future sounds like
If you want to get a sense of the potential of voice, here are few queries you can try out on Google Assistant on Android or iOS right now:
- How long does it take to get a new passport?
- How much does a driving test cost?
- When will I get child benefit paid?
Sam Dub is a product manager on GOV.UK and Mark Hurrell is the Head of Graphic Design for GDS.