Designing a speaker for the modern home

Daniel Hurst
6 min readOct 18, 2021

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Introduction

A quick thinking project

Millions of people use a smart speaker to perform a variety of tasks; Playing music, checking the weather, calendar, and much more. But if you’ve ever used a smart speaker you know that it can provide you with the answer to most questions.

The Experience

I wanted to look at how a user would use a speaker to perform daily tasks such as checking their calendar or finding a playlist for a house party — a lot of the solutions with how a smart speaker works are invisible to the user, such as commands like ‘translate this bread to Spanish’, or what is 500g in Oz. So for this mini project I will be looking into only select features of how the product could work in a connected way around the home and a user’s day to day tasks.

This is a small thinking exercise and is not exhaustive so it lacks full validations of any assumptions or hypotheses. I took the following steps to begin to understand and improve how users use a smart speaker in their home.

  1. Problem
  2. Approach
  3. Solution
  4. Learnings

Problem

Voice controlled devices are becoming the staple of any home, and improving all manner of day to day tasks, along with information delivery, from simple reminders to security.

The one main limitation most of these devices have is the lack of a visual display, so you always need a connected device, now everyone has these and it works perfectly, but what if you just want to quickly see your calendar, or the next song up in a playlist, these simple triggers could be easily glanced and adjusted.

I would love to dive into a user test but my time and constraints for this mini project are limited. My primary task was to find solutions that would improve the user experience of a smart speaker with the addition of a display working with the voice experience. I hope to prove or dis-proven the need/use of a display through the ideation. Research will be based upon assumptions from information in online articles.

Approach

I first need to understand the user and the motivations of using such a product, in this case it was finding out why and if a user would use a screen on a smart speaker. At a high level, I needed to discover what their main driver would be and the situations they would be in to use a mixed experience.

Users

Setting out some initial discovery to find the most prominent use cases of a speaker, I found a lot of people use it for adding items to their shopping list, although they would love it to integrate with 3rd party apps apple and android, and secondly people used it to play music with ease. With loads of different use cases I am limiting the uses to 2 problem spaces (1.Music, 2.Lists).

  1. Working parents want to add/edit items in their shopping list — they have a busy life and are always on the go, so items can be added at random times, and by different people.
  2. Young professionals, who like to entertain by having friends and family over, have a keen interest in music and finding and listening to a variety of artists.

There will be many types of user types but this gave me a foundation to put the different experiences into journeys and inform any decisions going forward.

Using these 2 user types I set out to check for opportunities, using the 2 areas of exploration.

How Might We’s

How might we improve the list experience?

How might we improve the music experience?

Now I have gone wide, I narrowed down this thinking into a user journey for both users. One around a user who wants to add and edit a list, and another who wants to play a playlist. I will be taking some thinking from the above task into the journeys to see if it could improve them.

User Scenarios & Journeys

When building the user journeys I discovered there is a key opportunity to integrate devices in a home, such as a user being able to ask the smart device to show something on their television, such as ‘Show me my packing list for Spain on the Lounge Tele’. This way of connecting all devices would enable an easy way to use the device that’s in the correct viewing proximity.

Sketching

I began to test how a screen based device could work. With people having multiple smart devices not all need screens in the home. It would be good for the hardware to have the ability to be added as an option at purchase, or added at a later date. This way one type of speaker could be created that could adapt for later additions.

Hardware

I didn’t have the ability to test the industrial design and the way to navigate, this would be depending on the overall speaker, but it was a good exercise to get an idea of how a user can interact with the device physically. The one I will be taking forward for this exercise is sketch-1, along with a touch input it has the ability to be rotated, and clicked as a physical input.

Interface

Moving forward with concept 1.1 I began to iterate on the flow for each user type, this began to create some gaps in the initial thinking of how the hardware would work. Such as the size of the display being limited.

Prototype — Solution

Music Scrub

The user should be given only the information they need as they are interacting, for example when a user is scrubbing forward during a song the experience will adjust to show time and remove unnecessary distractions, helping with focusing on the task in hand.

Lists
Having a device that allows for an input of voice and physical touch allows for easy editability.

Find a playlist
Having the ability to check what a playlist you have and what songs is a great use of a display, this could also be extended to a feature where you can mix 2 or more playlists together.

Learnings

  1. I stuck with iterating over a round display that would fit in the top of a speaker, although this worked for the concept it should be tested, and I think It should probably be a larger display based on readability from a distance, along with not being top mounted as this could cause some limitations depending on where the speaker is located such as in a cabinet.
  2. I don’t have access to the large amounts of data captured by tech giants such as Google or Amazon — so this article is based on a lot of assumptions. I would love to dive deeper into user motivations and further variations.
  3. The speaker should connect to every device in your home, and use them to its advantage. Asking to show my calendar on my lounge TV is such a great use case of this, especially while having your morning coffee.

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