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Speak, friend, and navigate

by Giles Turnbull -- 2000/10/10

Perhaps it's taking longer than we all expected, but sooner or later we're going to throw away our keyboards and talk to our computers instead. A team at the University of Maryland has been studying how web sites work with voice-controlled navigation, and the conclusions make for interesting reading.

Of course the death of the keyboard has been predicted for years, and it's fair to say that developments in mass-market voice recognition software have not been as rapid as everyone might have hoped.

But the software is getting better, and people will eventually start to use it on a fairly large scale basis. Ultimately it may be a generational shift - the people who are young now and grow up talking to computers are likely to be far happier doing so than the existing keyboard-dependent generation.

But the question arises of how web design should plan ahead for these speakeasy surfers. The team at the University of Maryland conducted experiments to compare the performance of voice-controlled browsing with mouse-controlled browsing.

Although voice-based technologies are already very important for people with physical disabilities, they will become even more important to webmasters in future as demand grows for hands-free web navigation - among car drivers, for example.

As the Maryland team points out, re-creating the visual language of the web in spoken form is something of a challenge.

They say:

First, a web page rendered with voice output is inherently a temporal medium. In a visually presented web page, many different images, tables and the like can be presented on the screen at the same time, in a spatial format that is quickly and effectively processed by the human perceptual system. Spoken text, however, can only be presented one word at a time.

Their conclusions include several pointers well worth noting by members of the web design and construction community, especially:

When creating web pages for voice navigation, designers should ensure that hyperlinks are easily spoken English text.