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Desktop 2000

THE CURRENT CROP of desktop speech recognition applications shows some improvement in accuracy and scope over 1998 offerings, but very little improvement in the human factors aspect. Click here for the current list of reviewed desktop products.

Vendors do not seem to understand that the competition is no longer about recognition accuracy - the products are all generally accurate enough to be productive. Instead, the competition is about ease of use.

It's hard to understand how some of these usability failures passed by the quality assurance teams working in these companies - some of the problems are so obvious. Has the passion for excellence been derailed by other business priorities? Perhaps.

What's Going Wrong With Ease of Use

We suspect that the vendors have been lulled into believing that traditional beta testing provided by potential customers, who are rewarded for their efforts by free copies of the product, will find most problems. But classical software testing strategies can't work for this type of product, we think, for many reasons. Here's why:

  • The monetary value of one of these speech recognition products is perhaps in the neighborhood of $150 to $200. It's difficult to know how beta testers value their time, but $200 isn't going to pay for much time these days of anybody with significant intelligence.
  • Internal company quality assurance teams are almost invariably computer literate and therefore tend to accept as normal certain human factors gaffes that a naive user would trip over.
  • Internal teams normally test to the "Product Specification" and, in the entire course of recorded information technology history, product specifications never specified human factors issues along with detailed usability criteria - concentrating instead on merely specifying product functions. Well, almost never.
  • The range of things to be tested is very much larger than is obvious as compared to a non speech oriented product. Adding speech to the traditional personal computer interface of mouse, screen and keyboard is not a mere linear extension of interface complexity. It is, in fact, of combinatorial geometric complexity because you are adding the multiple factors of vocalization variation, English syntax variation, word processing habits, text origination and assembling habits, real-time interaction with the current desktop state - along with generally random computer misrecognition errors of both text and/or commands coupled with people's here to fore unobserved and idiosyncratic responses to those kinds of errors.
  • The quality expectation levels of users are raised very much higher when a computer "understands you." The shoddy usability characteristics of the previous slop which yesterday passed for acceptable software is today made irritating and obvious by these new expectations. People wake up out of their accustomed usability numbness when they're in the presence of a speech recognition system.

Where Desktop Speech Recognition is Now

OK, those things all make the problem thorny. And they force us to be realistic about the current state of these products.

Here's the bottom line.

  • If you are physically handicapped, these products are a godsend.
  • If you are a fumble finger typist, these products are a godsend, but you'll curse the gods a lot.
  • If you are a beginning computer user, these products are a demi-godsend and you'll hope the demigod will go to school and get some more god lessons as soon as possible.
  • If you are an executive who is secretly afraid of computers but would like to show your competitors how avant-garde you are, these products are a godsend but keep your demos short and simple.
  • If you are very computer literate, you will bitch and moan and scream and holler and swear at the gods, but you will still use the products because sometimes the products are actually magic.

What You Can Find in These Reviews

The reviews that follow are detailed, some would say even picky. The detail makes them long, some would say even excessive. We believe the detail is important for those people who may need to support these products in a corporate environment and would like some advance notice about the kind of support necessary. We also have not seen this kind of detail reported elsewhere. All we have seen is glowing and gushing - which these reviews decidedly are not.

For an overview of the general usability criteria that we have used in arriving at this detail, please checkout the section of this web site titled "How We Test". You may also be interested in the equipment and tactics we used for testing this kind of product. Because of the length, each review is preceded by a summary which is for those of you who might find the detail unrelenting.

Since the marketplace changes constantly, all the detail for all the speech products of interest is not currently in place. For products which do not yet have full reviews but which we intend to cover, you will find preliminary information here. The detail for these products will be updated from time to time in keeping with an article entitled "Not Yet Speaking Freely" which appeared in Software Development Magazine, the November 1999 issue.

And now on to the desktop continuous speech recognition product reviews .....

IBM ViaVoice Millennium. Click here for full review.
Lernout & Hauspie VoiceXpress 4.0. Click here for full review.
Philips FreeSpeech 2000. Click here for full review.
Dragon Systems Naturally Speaking 4.0 Click here for a full review.







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Page Last Updated: 02/27/00