Using Natural Language Processing to improve User Experience
According to a Walker study, by the year 2020 customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.
Traditionally it's good customer service - human to human interaction - that boosts customer experience and brand loyalty. But as more companies embrace digital transformation, there is an increasingly bigger focus on customer experience's digital offshoot - user experience. And it's worth the investment - Forrester research calculates that the revenue impact from a 10% point improvement in a company’s customer experience score can translate into more than $1 Billion.
"User experience" is the positive or negative emotions or "experience" a person gets interacting with a digital product. Poor human-machine interaction translates into bad user and customer experience.
As a digital products and services company it's up to us to enable this seamless communication between man and machine. We know that for an application or website to be intuitive, number one priority is design. But what if the demands of the product are so detailed that you can't rely on design alone to deliver a superior user interface experience?
According to a recent study published by Accenture, artificial intelligence (AI) is the new user Interface (UI). Even the most famous example of a simplistic user friendly interface, Google, is turning to machine learning to improve customer experience.
I would like to share some research I have been doing on how to improve a user interface experience using artificial intelligence.
Using Artificial Intelligence to Benefit Users - An Exploration
Recently we have been working on a prototype where users can quickly look up individual contact details using a diverse range of search criteria. For the sake of this article let's say it's a web application that enables recruiters to find potential employees in an HR agency database.
Such information is typically retrieved from databases using Structured Query Language (SQL), something our developers might be fluent in but the majority of users are not.
The most obvious design option was an interface with a detailed filter system, which would then generate a SQL query to retrieve the stored information. However the search criteria was so diverse and the data set so big that multiple filter selection would be a time consuming and tedious process - something no user needs or expects in 2017.
We also needed to take into account that the interface was not likely to be used on a daily basis - which was all the more reason to make the user experience REALLY intuitive. To do our duty as user-friendly web developers we decided to create an interface where the user could query the database using standard Englishlanguage to input any combination of candidate criteria.
As part of my research I explored different examples of smart search syntax we could use for the interface. I found 2 pertinent possibilities for expressing a search query in a human-like way:
- Electrician, with a car, <10 km from Fribourg
- Watchmaker, meticulous, 2 to 5 years experience
- Electronic engineer, embedded systems, C++ and Java, analytical skills
- Manager, medical, ENTP, empathy and communication skills
- Less typing required
- Less complex for a tool to process
User needs to be taught how to write a query (albeit easy to repeat once mastered)
- Electrician with a car living in a range of 10 km from Fribourg
- A meticulous watchmaker that has 2 to 5 years of experience
- An Electronic engineer specialized in embedded systems, with an experience in C++ and Java, and with good analytical skills as well.
- Manager in the medical field, with a ENTP personality, with empathy and communication skills
- Allows more complex information to be provided. For the example sentence above, this would require parenthesis
- Could be less ambiguous from a user perspective
- User needs to think about how to structure the information according to the rules of a natural language
- Higher complexity which means
- More costs
- Less robust solution (= higher risk of misunderstanding by the tool)
We estimated that both options could offer acceptable user experience - if, for option 2, we could guarantee the chance of misinterpretation would be low. But simple was the name of the exercise, so ultimately the lower complexity of option 1 made us decide to pursue it further.
At this point, it was clear for us that we needed a natural language processing tool to transform the "natural" user input into a SQL request (or something close enough). It was then I started to explore the exciting new world for us that is Natural Language Processing.
What exactly is Natural Language Processing?
Definition: Natural language processing (NLP) is a component of artificial intelligence, concerned with the programming of computers so that they can process human (natural) language. The goal of natural language processing is to aid interaction between computer and human despite language differences.
The complexity of a NLP tool can be determined with 2 parameters:
- Breadth (of understanding) : Size of vocabulary and grammar.
- Depth (of understanding) : Degree to which its understanding approximate that of a fluent native speaker.
This means that there are 4 possible categories for a NLP tool, as described in the table below:
|Shallow||These Language interpreters require minimal complexity, but have a small range of applications||Systems that attempt to understand the contents of a document such as a news release beyond simple keyword matching and to judge its suitability for a user.|
|Deep||Systems that explore and model mechanisms of understanding, but they still have limited application||Beyond the current state of art.|
For our purpose, the processing tool's vocabulary was related to personal details (e.g. location, age, gender), personal skills (communication, analytical) and professional capacities (previous positions, technical skills). Therefore a narrow natural processing tool was a good option for our needs.
Going back to my explorations with smart syntax. For the first option, using a condensed human-like syntax, the keywords are already well structured by the user with commas. So the processing tool doesn't need to understand the structure of a whole sentence, but only simple parts of the text. Therefore this option requires a narrow-shallow processing tool.
If we had chosen the second option instead, which uses an ordinary human syntax, the keywords would need to be extracted from a natural language sentence. This requires a narrow-deep processing tool.
Which Narrow Natural Language Processing Tool to use for our Project?
Once a user inputs their query and hits "let's go", they are presented with an automatically generated filter-view of their selection criteria, which they can easily adjust if needed.
So thanks to our NLP tool we will be able to achieve our goal of using Natural Language Processing to create a super-simple user-friendly interface. And after we implement data analytics that capture every time a user types a non-supported expression, the capabilities of the tool will continually improve as it is used. Using this same theory, we would also be able to predict and handle user misspellings and increase the probability of a successful first time search.
After researching and starting to practically apply the theory I can make conclusions on various levels:
- When an application requires narrow-shallow natural language processing - ie. the ways of expressing the same information are predictable and limited - we should probably consider creating our own solution instead of a tool designed for more complex applications.
- Company level:
- We didn't end up with a super techy and hyped solution, but the best solution for an application is always the simplest possible solution that is not too simple. Using Natural Language Processing we will be able to create a product that gives a much better user experience than a more standard solution, while minimizing complexity. This is not a perfect human-machine interaction, but still a move forward in terms of non-standard approaches. That said, as the product evolves, we may come to a point that using a more complex NLP tool and approach will be beneficial.
- We found out that NLP is a very interesting world, with a lot of potential for the future. Advanced NLP techniques were overkill for this project, but we can almost take it for granted that someday we will need to work on a project where these techniques will be the right choice.
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