The BBC has set up a team of experts dedicated to designing editorial experiences specifically for voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, and shared some lessons on how to adapt editorial for voice platforms.

Speaking at News UK's first Change product and design event in Shoreditch last week, Daniel Whaley, senior product architect for voice and AI at the BBC, spoke about the rising ubiquity of voice assistants, specifically how they are replacing the radio in many homes.

© Amazon
© Amazon

There are clear synergies with what voice assistants tend to be used for today with key BBC services, namely: weather forecasts, news updates and radio. The BBC already has a deep integration with Alexa that allows users to simply request a radio station by name to be seamlessly directed onto the BBC iPlayer 'skill'. This ease of use does also come with a disintermediation risk however, as Whaley noted.

"This is really a market dominated by enormous gorillas with different, well-defined agendas, that don't always align with a public service broadcaster," he added.

"[The] younger demographic of 16-24 are a part of the audience we struggle to reach with iPlayer and BBC websites. Voice and other conversational interfaces are where they engage, so that's another reason to get into the space," he said.

Designing content for voice

Now the BBC is looking to expand its range of content built specifically for voice platforms. "If we don't do this, other media companies will," as Whaley put it.

"It's an editorial challenge to take our core mission [to inform, educate and entertain] into a conversational medium," he said, "as technologists we need a strategy and a platform to do that."

The answer for the BBC was to create a specific mixed-voice team, which is stationed on the hallowed ground of the newsroom floor and is made up of editorial, design and technology experts.

It is their job to take what the BBC does well, broadcast news and radio, and repackage that for a voice interface. "Listening to a site being read isn't a great experience," Whaley said, "and radio content often isn't the best for voice either."

The BBC is also investigating long-form storytelling for voice devices, with Whaley referencing the recent Netflix special episode of Black Mirror, Bandersnatch, as an example of the kind of stories that can be told in an interactive format. In fact, the BBC experimented with this format back in 2017, when it worked with specialists at Rosina Sound to create an original interactive audio drama for voice devices called The Inspection Chamber.

The BBC has also seen good engagement with its CBeebies skill, released in September last year, for young children. "They don't speak that well, but they like voice and fun and games," he said of that audience.

Lessons learned

Whaley had plenty of advice for anyone in the room looking to build editorial for voice platforms, starting with writing a really good skill description for the skill store.

He also advised to "build prototypes early, iterate and put users at the centre," which is pretty general advice but also taught his team a few lessons about how users are very impatient with voice assistants, so getting the user to what they want quickly should be key to the design of anything for a voice interface.

Most importantly though, "content is still king to maintain engagement," he said. "Building habits and routines are key and personalisation is key to drive engagement," which is why daily briefings are a good format for voice.