HealthAugust 04, 2019

Designing for voice: Think beyond Alexa

Freddie Feldman is Voice Design Director at Clinical Effectiveness, Wolters Kluwer, Health. He leads a team of four voice user interface designers, and has a long personal history in both software engineering and vocal music. We talked to him about the skills he acquired along the way that help him understand how people respond to voice interactions over the telephone. This is Part 1 of our three-part interview.

A conversation with Freddie Feldman

What does a voice user interface, or VUI, designer do?

We design the voice interactions for our EmmiTransition® and EmmiPrevent® programs and our IVR - interactive voice response - phone calls. My charge is to remind everybody within the team of the importance that phone still plays in patient interaction.

Do you have a sort of “VUI philosophy”? Any guiding principles that you follow?

I like to think about emotionally intelligent design. When I go to the Voice of Healthcare Summit in Boston, I'm the one person there that's talking about IVR. Everybody else is talking about voice assistants.

When people say voice now, in 2019, everybody thinks Alexa. It's not the only thing out there. The phone is still there and the phone is still important, and there's still a tremendous amount of value that the phone can bring to patient engagement that a voice assistant just can't.

There is nothing in a voice assistant that compares to the intimacy and the privacy of the telephone. Your phone has been around long before you, right? It is literally everywhere. And it doesn't require any training or instruction. It doesn't need updates of software. There's no settings. It rings, you pick it up. You're done, you hang it up. And it uses the built-in interface that we have, which is our voice and our ears.

What are you going to talk about at the Voice of Healthcare Summit?

I walk through a true story with a patient who is discharged after a heart attack and, when back home, receives EmmiTransition calls to follow-up, and what happens next.

What story is that?

With EmmiTransition, after you are discharged from the hospital, we do two days of follow-up calls. Part of the second call is - we call it “coping with depression.” Or anxiety. We ask them if they're sad. There's a standard set of questions where you've lost interest in doing things that used to give you pleasure, or are you sad and feel lonely, etc.

Those are red flags in our daily report that goes to a physician. And those are then followed up again by a human. A patient said they were sad and depressed. A clinical social worker calls him back. He says, "Yes, I am actually depressed and I'm holding a gun right now and I don't know what to do." And she kept him on the phone. She signaled for emergency. They were able to bring him in and saved him.”

How did you find your way into this line of work?

For college I only applied to dual-degree engineering and voice programs. I ended up going to Northwestern. That’s how I got to Chicago.

I was a voice major. I sang in an a capella group in college, and I worked for a bunch of different software companies on the side. I've been programming since high school. Right out of college, I decided I wasn't going to get this job with Medtronic doing pacemaker design because I never wanted to have a job where people's life depended on what I worked on.

And then I went on tour with an a capella group as a beatboxer. When the group sort of fizzled, I got a job as an associate software engineer for a healthcare company. I have worked for a number of different software and voice development companies - I flip-flopped back and forth.

I started a recording studio when I got that software engineering job and produced records on the side. I produced 130 a capella albums over the past 20 years for groups in 10 countries. I'm a voting member of the Recording Academy, too. I go to the Grammy Awards when I can afford it. Then I was the lead singer in a rock-and-roll band, Gasket.

You have invented something you call a throat microphone for people who can't talk. How does that inform the work you do at Emmi?

I've worked directly with patients who are trapped in their bodies. They can't get their thoughts out of their head because the speaker is broken, because of MS or ALS or some other illness or injury. The wiring is not working right. Working with people like that and seeing the struggles, and feeling it with them, I understand that what our patients might be going through a little bit more than if I didn't have that experience.


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