Voice user experiences have evolved quickly. From voice-only solutions to the rise of voice-led and voice-supported multimodal interactions, conversational designers have had to stretch further than ever before in 2020. In addition, product leaders have been pushing out new features and setting new user experience quality levels.
Big company professionals from Adobe, Amazon, and Google once again made the top leaders in voice list along with independents from boutique consulting firms and front-line designers at voice app publishers. In this category, we had some departures due to acquisition and assumption of new roles outside of voice, but the expanded list shows the increasing variety of skill sets. One of those includes a couple of big company users of voice assistants for their customers–Dr. Sandhya Pruthi and Joyce Even of Mayo Clinic along with Jeanine Heck of Comcast. We have listed the honorees for 2020 below, along with short bios and why our judges thought they deserved recognition.
To learn more about the selection methodology and honorees in the other categories go here: Go to Overview
WHY SHE MADE THE LIST // Adva Levin came to the voice industry by way of literary translation, screenwriting, and content development. That gave her an unconventional foundation from an industry perspective on what makes an excellent conversational interaction. Many long-time conversational designers learned the trade by creating efficient transactional interactions for call centers instead of immersive experiences with a storyteller’s perspective. Adva’s profile rose quickly after she was awarded the grand prize for Amazon’s first Kids Skill Competition for the Kid’s Court Alexa skill. She went on to found Pretzel Labs, a company that creates voice interactive games for children and consults on conversational design for consumer brands. Adva has also performed research with young children about their interaction behaviors and preferences related to voice assistants. These accomplishments in design, research, and product strategy, along with an active speaking schedule on the voice conference circuit, has quickly given Adva a high profile in the conversation design community.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Adobe acquired Sayspring in 2018 as a way to kickstart its efforts around conversational design. Sayspring offered online software that enabled anyone to quickly create interactive prototypes for voice applications for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. It was different from other solutions at the time because it was entirely focused on designers and didn’t enable the automatic transition of the designs into voice apps. Mark Webster was CEO and co-founder of Sayspring. His team’s insight was that designers needed a tool to focus solely on the user experience before bringing in engineering teams or addressing the messiness of implementation. Many thought Mark would move along to other ventures after the Adobe acquisition. Instead, he has become one of the industry’s recognized leaders around conversational design and how new voice interfaces can be incorporated into traditional channels. Given Adobe’s leadership position in the digital creative community, Webster is a significant influence on both the tools and thought leadership perspectives.
WHY SHE MADE THE LIST // Lisa Falkson has a Masters Degree in electrical engineering and started her career as a product engineer at Sun Microsystems. She soon moved over to Nuance Communications, first in Speech Technology, before switching to voice user interface design roles. Her deep technical background stands out among the designers and product pros in this year’s list. Later, Falkson was the lead VUI designer for Amazon’s Lab126 project Fire Phone. While there, she also worked on Fire TV and the Echo smart speaker. After voice UX design leadership positions at Cloudcar and NIO, Falkson returned to Amazon as a senior VUI designer focused on Alexa communications such as calling, messaging, drop-ins, and announcements. Falkson is the author of Ubiquitous Voice: Essays from the Field, available from Amazon.com.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Wally Brill is the head of conversation design advocacy and education at Google. Brill has tremendous influence over the best practices for Google Assistant design disseminated to voice developers and designers from this position. He began his journey with talking computers in 1999 as a director of persona design and production at Nuance Communications. He later served as SVP of customer experience at VoxGen Group, director of self-service for global customer experience at eBay, and a senior persona designer for Adecco at Google. While at Adecco, Brill created The Assistant persona definition, developed a process for internationalization, and male and female personas for seven European markets. “I love talking with robots and teaching them to talk back,” says Brill.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Scott Ganz began his career as a screenwriter for PBS, Walt Disney Animation, Disney Television Group, and USA Networks, among others. In 2013, he joined PullString (formerly ToyTalk) as creative director, head writer, and conversation designer. In that role, he was head writer for “The SpongeBob Challenge,” a joint project with Nickolodeon and Amazon, BBC’s Dr. Who voice experience “The Saviour of Time,” “Doctor Strange” for Marvel Studios, and Capital One’s Eno chatbot among others. He then spent time at voice experience studio Xandra and Intuit before joining Apple as a senior conversation writer for Siri earlier this year. Everyone is waiting for Siri to step up its game, and 2021 might be the year. Scott’s experience and disposition suggest a new Siri might be more dynamic and have more depth in its next iteration.
WHY SHE MADE THE LIST // Maaike Groenewege is a linguist and conversational designer for companies such as ABN AMRO, Cashew.ai, Readspeaker, the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, and others. After time with Lucent and other companies as a technical writer, Groenewege spent 14 years at LVNL, the air traffic control agency in The Netherlands, helping ensure information was shared consistently and effectively with the controllers. More recently, she has become a voice design community organizer and mentor. Groenewege is the Women in Voice chapter founder for The Netherlands and the Host of #VoiceLunch Language & Linguistics. She is the founder of conversational design agency Convocat.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Every industry needs standards as it develops. Hans Van Dam wasn’t the first to set up a training program for the voice industry, but while most others created curricula for developers, the Conversation Design Institute and Conversation Academy designed classes and certifications for voice user experience design. Van Dam has a background in copywriting and started in chatbot design before incorporating voice into the conversational UX training curriculum. The Academy teaches conversational writing and personality development, as you might expect. However, students also learn workflow. This means students are gaining both practical skills and a methodology for running a conversational design project end-to-end.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Most of the product and design leaders for 2020 focus on the software-driven elements of user experience. Josh.ai has reimagined both the software and hardware experience for the high-end smart home. Amazon, Google, and their ecosystem partners offer tens of thousands of voice-interactive smart home devices with proven functionality and mass-market appeal. However, they all rely on cloud services for voice functionality, and most are designed to look like common consumer electronic devices. Alex Capecelatro and his team saw a market need that these players were ignoring. The owners of the priciest real estate are often celebrities, public figures, or wealthy business people and the target of snooping by outsiders. They worry about the security and privacy risks of their voice data traveling to the cloud. They also want smart home technology that is invisible and doesn’t interfere with their homes’ art-like aesthetic. Josh.ai has a solution that is both completely private and elegant. Its on-premise, discrete server for smart homes enables voice controls similar to what you would find from the cloud-based services, but it is all self-contained, and data never travels outside the four-walls, offering added privacy protection. The smart devices include the recently announced smart speaker input microphone called Nano, which is just 1.6 inches in diameter and designed to be installed discreetly into walls and be all but invisible.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Paul Cutsinger was head of Voice Design Education for Alexa, where he was directly working with developers and designers when he made the Top Leaders in Voice list in 2019. Given that he has moved into more of a strategy role and been less visible in 2020 than in the past, it is a testament to his industry reputation that our judges still gave him a high ranking for the category. Some people think Paul could be in the technologist category, but his mission has been to help make third-party Alexa skill developers successful on the platform, and that falls within the design and product scope for our list. Plus, Cutsinger’s Twitch videos still influence thousands of developers and designers building for Alexa. Before joining the Alexa team in 2016, Cutsinger was chief evangelist for the Amazon App Store. Prior to Amazon, he ran engineering for several products at The Walt Disney Company as a vice president of technology and spent 14 years with Microsoft in program management and technical roles.
WHY SHE MADE THE LIST // The rise of voice assistants has exposed a blind spot for brand marketers. Many have spent large sums creating, tweaking, and maintaining their visual brand identity, but few have given any thought to how their brand sounds. That means many are thinking about this for the first time when they deploy their first Alexa skill or custom voice assistant. Someone who has thought about this a lot, creating on-brand sound portfolios for more than 20 years, is Audrey Arbeeny, the founder and CEO of Audiobrain. Audiobrain is an agency that creates sonic brands and is credited with the brand sound for Xbox, Virgin Mobile, GSK, Whirlpool, Holland America, becoming one of the most prominent companies in voice tech today. Audiobrain essentially established the category of sonic branding and is in high demand as companies confront their sound shortcomings. Arbeeny and the Audiobrain team help companies polish their voice and audio user experiences by delivering differentiated, consistent, and brand-aligned sonic identities that complement and reinforce their visual identities. Audiobrain’s work shows up everywhere, from product sounds and background music in physical spaces to audio for online games and ads. Arbeeny has also served as music supervisor for the past seven Olympic Games and won two Emmy awards for her work in London and Beijing.
WHY THEY MADE THE LIST // At the 2020 Project Voice Awards, Sarah Andrew Wilson held the stage more often than any other participant as Matchbox.io took home four awards, including Gaming Voice Developer of the Year, Amazon Alexa Developer of the Year, and Gaming Voice Experience of the Year. Sarah was also named an Alexa Champion in 2020 and oversees the content development for the company’s entire voice app portfolio, including Question of the Day, a voice app used daily by more than 100,000 people. Joel Wilson founded Matchbox.io in 2015 and has become one of the most successful developers for Alexa and Google Assistant, leveraging his deep knowledge of data analytics to continually improve the reception and performance of the company’s growing list of voice interactive education and gaming titles. Over the past year, Joel and Sarah have launched new games, integrated the acquisition of Opearlo titles into Matchbox.io’s portfolio, introduced the Question of the Day podcast and flash briefing, and even launched a new mobile app called Socratix. The new app includes mobile access to Question of the Day and also offers the ability to connect with friends for trivia competitions and track individual statistics.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Ian Freed is co-founder and CEO of one of the most popular educational software developers for Amazon Alexa. The company was launched to provide new home-based learning experiences for children that leverage new capabilities introduced by voice interactive assistants. Its award-winning Bamboo Music and Bamboo Math were two of its first titles, with the latter providing both a learning experience designed for children and an online portal (Bamboo Grove) for parents to monitor their progress. Bamboo was also among the first companies to develop a multimodal learning experience for Alexa with its expertly designed Bamboo Math skill. However, Ian Freed is not just any entrepreneur that saw an opportunity to build new voice experiences for the popular new smart speaker consumer device category. Before Bamboo Learning, Freed was vice president of Amazon devices for several years, where he oversaw the development of several Amazon products, including the Echo smart speaker and Alexa.
WHY THEY MADE THE LIST // Mayo Clinic has quickly become a leader among healthcare organizations in adopting voice interactive technologies to better connect with the community and patients. Dr. Sandhya Pruthi and Joyce Even have led these efforts by corralling Mayo Clinic’s vast medical knowledge base and transforming it for easy consumption through voice interactive devices. The result is a popular Alexa skill where consumers can access health-related information and becoming the primary source for Alexa’s first-party health information answers to user questions. Along the way, Mayo Clinic has also experimented with using voice assistants in clinical settings to provide patients and providers with information. Consumers have expressed strong interest in getting access to more healthcare information and services through voice assistants in Voicebot surveys from 2019 and 2020. Mayo Clinic has been a leader in bringing healthcare information into voice assistant platforms for consumers, and both Pruthi and Even have freely shared their experiences with industry peers to help drive faster adoption of voice technologies for everyone’s benefit.
WHY SHE MADE THE LIST // Jeanine Heck oversees one of the most successful voice interactive devices ever developed, the Xfinity Voice Remote. Over 20 million subscribers to Comcast cable in the U.S. use the Xfinity voice remote each week to control their television experience, search for shows, and set recording schedules. The device has had so much impact that it even won an Emmy Award in 2017. Heck is vice president of AI Product at Comcast and comes to the role with a technical background starting her career as a programmer after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with degrees in engineering and computer science. She led the voice remote project from its inception nearly 10 years ago and oversaw the development of Comcast’s first video-on-demand and linear TV search engine. In 2013, Comcast introduced a mobile app to control Xfinity cable services, and then the physical remote device debuted in 2015. The Xfinity voice remote has become a reference standard for many other television services as they have moved to introduce their own voice-interactive capabilities in recent years.
WHY HE MADE THE LIST // Jonathon Myers is a writer with an MFA and a background in psychology. That led him into screenwriting, creative writing, and ultimately narrative storytelling and game design. Myers co-founded Earplay in 2013 to create narrative storytelling experiences on mobile devices but pivoted exclusively to leveraging voice UX/UI as a new medium shortly after Amazon opened up Alexa to third-party developers. The company gained early recognition for its interactive mysteries and radio drama style for Alexa skills. Work with Universal Pictures for Jurassic World and USA Networks for Mr. Robot raised Earplay’s profile, as did the 2020 Halloween release of The Orpheus Device with Paradox Interactive. Not content with just producing voice interactive experiences as a studio, Earplay in 2019 began providing software that helps other creators and creative agencies develop voice-first narrative experiences.
WHY SHE MADE THE LIST // Heidi Culbertson showed up on last year’s list as a top industry influencer. This year the judges really felt her impact was more significant in the product and design category. Much of this comes down to Culbertson’s increasing influence on product design strategies for engaging the over 50-year-old segment through voice assistants. Culbertson was drawn into the field when she realized that an Amazon Echo smart speaker was an enormously liberating technology for her mother, who suffered from macular degeneration. It helped her maintain independence into her 90s. However, Alexa had functionality gaps for elder adults, so she launched an Alexa skill named Marvee to provide a more comprehensive solution for this user segment. As her experience grew, Culbertson was increasingly sought after for voice AI strategy and conversation design services for companies seeking to connect with elder adults, and Marvee formally transitioned into a design consultancy.