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user experience & design

Should your firm be using a voice user interface (VUI) in your legal software?

Chris Powers
March 2nd, 2021
10 MINUTE READ

More and more users are relying on their voice to interact with software. According to Adobe, 94% of users feel that voice technology not only saves them time but improves their quality of life. Screen fatigue is also becoming a significant concern, with some studies estimating that 50% or more of computer users experience digital eye strain (DES)

The success of consumer-focused technology—like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa—has given rise to the voice user interface (VUI), an approach that prioritizes speech recognition in human-computer interaction. VUIs are the most recent technological advancement in the realm of human-computer interaction, which traces its lineage all the way back to punch cards. Much like the touch screen, VUI promises to be a transformative approach to how we engage with computers.

Because of its significant potential, developers are increasingly incorporating voice functionality into software user interfaces. VUIs offer some key advantages that make them extremely enticing for organizations that need to find ways to curb manual tasks and run leaner. Law firms definitely fit this bill. 

The day-to-day operations of a law firm are fraught with burdensome elements, like mountains of paperwork, lengthy meetings, stringent regulatory requirements, and frequent client communications. VUIs can help to streamline these time-consuming processes, all without the use of a screen.

In this blog post, we’ll give a crash-course in all things voice-enabled software. We’ll formally define what a VUI is, then give a bit of history on how they came to be. We’ll explore some of the benefits of VUIs and, finally, explain how they can drive efficiencies for firms when implemented in legal software. Read on to learn about the potential of this cutting-edge technology.

What are voice user interfaces (VUIs)?

In simplest terms, a user interface (UI) is the environment in which humans interact with computers. All devices, apps, websites, operating systems, software, and more have UIs. As technology has advanced, significant advances have been made in the field of human-computer interaction, resulting in increasingly more intuitive and engaging UIs. 

Some of the earliest computers utilized command-line interfaces (CLIs), environments where humans input lines of text in order for a computer to process commands. If you’ve ever opened up the command prompt on a Windows machine, you know what a CLI looks like. Typically, CLIs are difficult to learn and require a solid understanding of command-line prompts to complete complex tasks.

As technology progressed and personal computers became more accessible, graphical user interfaces (GUIs) became popular. GUIs are frequently referred to as WIMPs—for windows, icons, menus, and pointers—and allow the user to use a mouse or their finger to interact with on-screen elements. Pretty much all modern UIs, from smartphones to tablets to ATM machines, can be classified as GUIs.

Advances in voice recognition and other technologies have now made it possible to interact with computers using only the human voice. Commonly implemented into smart speakers and voice assistants, VUIs allow users to make commands and complete tasks through speech. VUIs have the potential to significantly alter how humans engage with technology.

“The relationships between human and computer will be interactive and collaborative—people and computers will work together.” writes Gleb Kuznetsov, designer and founder of Milkinside. “This will impact society—just imagine that in 10 years, you’ll walk into the house and just talk and control all kinds of machines.”

How does a voice user interface work (VUI) work?

Smart speakers, smartphones, and any other voice-enabled device must have a VUI in order to accept voice commands and complete tasks. Occasionally, VUIs collaborate with GUIs to improve the user experience—think about the glowing orb that pulsates on an iPhone screen to indicate that Siri is listening. But in order to ensure seamless navigation with just the human voice, VUIs need to function effectively on their own. Let’s examine what makes VUIs tick.

Automatic speech recognition (ASR) is the main technology that drives VUIs. In its simplest form, ASR takes spoken words and converts them into text. Using ASR technology, computers can detect patterns in the waveforms of human speech, match these patterns with the sounds in a given language, then convert them to text. This text can then be understood and interpreted by the computer and used to complete tasks. ASR essentially serves as a lightning-fast translator that allows computers to understand the spoken language of humans. 

But in order to fully ascertain the meaning of commands or questions interpreted via ASR, computers need something called natural language understanding (NLU). NLU is a type of artificial intelligence (AI) that allows computers to attach meaning to the words spoken by a user. By using NLU, computers can understand that you are looking for local restaurants when you ask, “What are some places to eat near me?” and give you targeted feedback as a result.

VUIs incorporate other technological components, including name entity recognition (NER) and speech synthesis. NER works to identify words as individual entities and classify them into a set of predefined categories. This allows computers to extract key information from a spoken request in order to better understand that request. Let’s say you ask a computer, “What is the best accounting firm in Chicago?” Using NER, the computer would be able to identify that by “accounting firm” you mean an organization and that Chicago is the specific location you are invoking. NER can be pre-trained to help computers identify and classify a wide variety of subjects, like the names of people, times, monetary values, percentages, and much more.

Speech synthesis, also called “text-to-speech” output, occurs when a computer produces artificial human speech and voice from text. Speech synthesis utilizes AI and machine learning capabilities to help computers more closely imitate human speech. A good VUI incorporates speech synthesis functionality to ensure consistent improvement in speech cadence, pitch, and intonation.

Benefits of voice user interfaces (VUIs)

Like traditional GUIs, VUIs are designed to facilitate seamless connection and communication between humans and computers. However, VUIs offer a few distinct advantages over visual UIs. Let’s consider some of the benefits of incorporating a VUI into your software.

Intuitiveness

GUIs came about in the early days of personal computing when it became necessary to establish a collective understanding of how to engage with computers beyond text-based CLIs. GUIs rely on commonly-understood visual cues and elements—like windows, icons, and menus—to ensure users can easily navigate through applications and complete tasks. But while the learning curve for using GUIs is not as steep as old-school command-line interfaces, getting the hang of them still requires some work. And GUIs can vary significantly between platforms, including desktop, laptop, tablet, and mobile.

Conversely, VUIs require no baseline knowledge—other than the ability to speak. VUIs enable users to engage with computers in the same way that they would talk to a friend. They can be utilized the same way across platforms, be it a smartphone, smart speaker, or other voice-enabled devices. Thinking broadly, VUI can be interpreted as the great equalizer, allowing all to interact with computers—even those who are unfamiliar with technology.

Speed

A 2016 Stanford study revealed that smartphone speech recognition can compose text messages three times faster than a human typing. As humans, speech is our primary form of communication, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. Simple dictation is noticeably faster than typing on a computer keyboard or a smartphone touch screen. Implementing a VUI significantly streamlines the process of engaging with technology, saving precious time and allowing users to complete tasks faster.

Convenience

You don’t have to be a multitasking extraordinaire to understand how easy it is to speak while completing other activities. Ever talked to a friend on the phone while driving? Or cleaned the kitchen while recalling the finer points of your day to a family member? Speech is an incredible form of communication because it’s extremely conducive to multitasking. VUIs capitalize on this convenience, allowing users to engage with technology while completing other tasks. It doesn’t require you to hold anything in your hands or sit down in front of a screen. VUIs enable users to engage with technology on the go in a practical way.

Empathy

One key component that text-based communication lacks is tone. Human communication encompasses so much more than just the individual words being shared. Tone provides the context for the words. It helps us understand the true meaning. 

Text-based messaging is cut-and-dry. It lacks intonation and inflection. It can be hard to detect sarcasm or determine the motive behind the message. But VUI offers the groundbreaking opportunity to incorporate tone—as well as other human conversation elements—into how we engage with technology. Voice conveys emotion, personality, and—most importantly—empathy. Because VUIs frame human-computer interactions as conversations, VUIs can utilize these traits of human speech to create more empathetic, natural communication.

VUI and legal software

The advent of VUI promises to be transformative for the legal industry. Though the legal space is notorious for resisting change and being reluctant to adopt new technological tools, more and more legal professionals are seeing the value VUI-enabled tools bring to the table. Legal software that incorporates VUI improves productivity, drives efficiency, and saves precious time. Let’s examine some of the ways voice-enabled software empowers attorneys and other legal professionals.

Speech-to-text dictation

Lawyers have long been proponents of dictation. Back in the day, attorneys would frequently dictate key documents, recording their speech with tape recorders. Then, secretaries would listen back and transcribe these documents, a time-consuming and involved process. Now, thanks to VUI and its component technologies, computers can handle the transcription, freeing up support staff and allowing lawyers to continue using a tried-and-true trick of the trade. 

As Nicole Black of the American Bar Association Journal writes, “Gone are the days of dictaphones, miniature cassette tapes and the time-consuming back-and-forth between you and your administrative assistant. The advent of voice recognition dictation has ushered in an entirely new and streamlined way to dictate documents. And the good news is that today’s lawyers have more choices than ever when it comes to 21st century digital dictation tools.”

Document sharing

Safe and secure document sharing is a significant challenge for law firms, especially those who have yet to embrace true digital transformation. But voice-enabled software can help firms manage documents in the cloud. Using simple voice commands—like, “Send this non-disclosure agreement to Susan to sign,” or, “Send this document to all of the partners for their review”—attorneys and support staff ensure documents get to the right people in a timely manner. 

By integrating a VUI with your legal software’s contact database and cloud document sharing platform, you can save valuable time and energy. No digging through the contact database to locate email addresses, no having to compose individual emails every time a document needs to be shared. VUI can help automate all manual tasks that stack up. Legal documents and forms can easily be shared across an organization and to all relevant stakeholders with just a few spoken commands.

Appointment scheduling and calendar management

A popular feature among users of voice assistants like Google Assistant or Microsoft’s Cortana, calendar management can be leveraged in legal software to a significant extent. A VUI can easily integrate with your legal software’s calendar functionality to make scheduling events and meetings—and managing your day—possible with easy vocal commands. “Set up a 30-minute meeting with the partners for tomorrow at 2 p.m.” “Reschedule my client meeting at 10 a.m. for next Wednesday at the same time.” “What do I have going on today?” If using VUI is all about making day-to-day processes more efficient, why not include the calendar?

Wrapping up

VUI represents the latest innovation in a long history of making it easier for humans and computers to communicate and get things done faster. VUI’s potential applications in the legal software space are impressive. In the name of efficiency, VUI can completely transform how firms get things done, leaving more time to focus on the important things.

Here at Codal, we work with legal firms and corporations across the world to achieve the ambitious goal of updating, streamlining, and transitioning decades of paperwork and processes into innovative and extensive digital platforms. 
Codal builds custom solutions that streamline legal service delivery—from audits, to contract management, to litigation—and help your organization run more efficiently and effectively. Want to get acquainted with Codal’s cutting-edge, voice-enabled solutions for the legal space? Get in touch today.

Chris Powers
AUTHOR

Chris Powers

Chris is a Content Marketing Specialist at Codal. With a background in journalism and marketing, Chris has written about a variety of tech topics, including open source, fintech, and cybersecurity. Chris loves taking on new challenges with just a pen, paper, and his brain.

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