The (tongue-in-cheek) lamentations of a VUI designer.
People often ask me, why does interactive voice response never seem to get any better? When the subject comes up among voice user interface design professionals, several explanations are usually suggested—not the least of which is the fact that many VUI design decisions are often made by project players other than the VUI expert. Let's explore a fictitious (and playful) example.
An IVR project team meets to discuss the proposed design of a novel system's main menu. The team's VUI expert has made his design proposal, and the rest of the team is meeting to discuss and approve it. The VUI designer has proposed, "Which would you like? This, that, or the other?" The project leader asks the VUI designer to explain his proposal.
The designer explains that the system requires only three choices—"this, that, or the other"—and how limiting menus to three choices is generally a good idea. In fact, the shorter the prompt, the better in most cases.
But the project leader pushes on, wanting to know why "Which would you like? This, that, or the other?" should be the way to go.
Obligingly, the designer explains that industry experts have found that using a "which" construction can reduce state and recognition errors, apparently because users tend to listen to all choices before making a response.
The lead developer might ask, "Why not just turn 'barge in' off? Wouldn't that make them listen to all the choices?" To which the designer might reply, "Not necessarily. They won't know 'barge in' is off until they speak and are ignored. While preoccupied with this discovery, they are unlikely to be attending to the other choices."
About this time, the business leader might say something like, "Some people might see this 'which' business as too formal. Why not say, 'Do you want this, that, or the other?' To which the designer might reply, "We could do that, but users are more likely to interject 'yes' or something similar when they hear the choice that they want. This almost always necessitates a clarification or confirmation, which many users perceive as an annoying setback."
At this point, the team marketing expert might weigh in with something like, "I think it's important that the IVR at all times appears to be caring, personal, and completely natural. In fact, I think it would be even better to ask, 'How can I help you?'" To which the designer might respond, "Well, some folks have tried that, but many have found that those types of approaches cause their own kinds of problems."
Then there might follow the opinion of the legal expert. "I feel I should point out that whatever we decide to say, we need to ensure that ACME assumes no particular nor specific liabilities in saying that which we say."
About now, the project leader might suggest an adjournment so all the team members can internally discuss the various ideas that were brought into the debate.
Two weeks later, the next project meeting is called….
The project manager explains that the team has thought about the main menu long and hard. "And after much discussion and passionate debate, we have decided that it should be the following: 'How can I help you?' 'Which would you like?' 'Do you want this, that, or the other?'" He goes on to note that there are just a few more things that need to be hashed out by legal and marketing and says that the final verbiage should be decided by the end of the week.
Six weeks later….
The project manager exclaims, "Well, we have it! We integrated the ideas and edits from marketing and legal and our main menu prompt is to be:
(barge in off) "'We care about your needs and we intend to serve you, our customer, personally, in a manner that will ensure the very best customer service experience. All we need to know is how we can help you! Please note, however, that our acceptance of your statement of what you need in no way suggests that we accept as factual your assessment of your needs, and we therefore cannot be held responsible for any discrepancy between your stated needs and what your needs may, in fact, turn out to be. How can I help you? Which would you like? (barge in on) Do you want this, that or the other?"
Walter Rolandi is an official advisor to the gethuman.com movement. He owns The Voice User Interface Company, a private consultancy specializing in the design and empirical assessment of voice user interfaces.