Why We Built Howdy
I’m one of the tiny team that built Howdy, a new voice-first chat application that sends speech & an auto-punctuated transcript to close friends and family. We launched our iOS app in Q1 of 2022 and we’re working on the Android app!
Speaking & Reading
Humans are really good at talking. Most people can talk at about 120 words per minute. Using a computer keyboard, most folks average typing 50, on a phone that’s more like 30, and you’re really in a pickle if you’re trying to tap out a message on a smart watch. Speech can be fast everywhere.
Conversely, your eyes funnel enormous quantities of data to your brain, much more than your ears. Reading is can be much faster than listening. It’s possible to “skim” text to quickly understand if a given message is urgent or casual in a way that’s just not possible with audio alone.
But just reading can often drop critical signal; sometimes it’s important to hear how someone said something. Were they being sarcastic? Were they making a joke? Were they crying while they said it? Or angry? These nuances don’t show up in text but can make a world of difference in how a message is interpreted. Preserving both speech audio and a good transcript is important for efficient communication.
Time & Intimacy
Another angle is asynchronous versus synchronous; busy folks don’t have time for very many phone calls — they need to be scheduled. If you just call someone out of the blue you may be interrupting their flow, busting in on a meeting, or barging in on a family dinner. So it’s more polite to just text instead, or passively read posts and status updates from the people we care about. But telemetry on the people is not the same thing as being close to them. And text messages don’t engender the same sense of connection and intimacy as a phone call or an in-person visit. What if we could have the intimacy of a phone call with the convenience of a text message?
Voice messaging is already a function of many popular instant messaging apps; and in many emerging markets it is common to share such messages. But a consistent point of feedback is that while it’s delightfully easy to compose them, it’s a pain to receive since you need to listen to the whole message just to understand its content. One user we talked to was in several Indian WhatsApp groups where many people were posting voice messages — just keeping up with the content in each group proved a substantial time commitment. People need to be able to scan the text, too! But no current instant messenger includes this critical use case.
Our team previously shipped an experiment called “BLRB” that let you publish blurbs of speech to the web as both text and audio. While novel, it only saw modest use — and when people did use it, they did so predominantly to voice journal or send personal messages to others. BLRB wasn’t built for either of these things, so we paused work on it and the team started chewing on what it would look like to build a product with messaging and journaling as first-class citizens.
Most folks with an iPhone or iPad have probably used the built-in transcription provided by Apple, dubbed Siri. It was totally state of the art in 2010 but has languished as the industry has evolved past it. Transcriptions need many fix-ups and don’t even infer punctuation. Folks are used to transcription that doesn’t work very well, and don’t realize that things like inferred punctuation are even possible.
That’s why one of my favorite parts of introducing folks to Howdy is seeing their reaction to their first recording. “Wow, it gets the punctuation! I don’t need to dictate periods and commas!” “OMG it recognized everything I said!” People deserve to have apps that actually understand them — and that help them be understood by others.
Anna, Dima, and I have spent the last few months building this new experience, that puts the voice first in connecting people with each other. We’ve been using it to chat with each other regularly for the last few weeks and find it adds a touch of the personal that we don’t get on Slack and also lets us efficiently share longer and more complex thoughts with each other. We hope you’ll try out the app and give us your feedback! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts; or if you run into a bug, just shake your phone to report the issue to us.