Aligning Customer and Company Goals Through VUI

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Companies want to provide customer service to their\ customers. They also want to do it inexpensively, prompting many to turn to automation. Unfortunately, many make those cost reductions at the expense of a quality customer service experience. This is a case wherein company and customer are working at cross-purposes. Yet, this need not be. A few simple VUI design considerations can help better align the goals of both customer and company:

Afford Choices
One key component of a quality self-service customer experience is choice. Too often, voice user interfaces (VUIs) are rigidly designed that they limit or prevent users from making their own choices. Such systems seem to reflect the preferences of the company, irrespective of the preferences of the company's customers. The easiest way to make people happy is to give them what they want. It is obvious that users will use well-designed self-service systems when doing so suits their needs. But when their needs require speaking to a human or scheduling a callback, those choices should be freely supported.

Ease of Use
It goes without saying that a VUI should be easy to use. It should support automation of only a very few tasks. Supported tasks should be accomplishable in the fewest possible steps. The time needed to complete the necessary steps per task, including estimates of recognition failures and confirmations, must not overtax the user's motivation to perform the task. There should be no need for help systems or pre-emptive prompting strategies that tell the user what to say. If a system leaves a user not knowing what to do, then the system is, by definition, not easy to use.

Don't Play Games
Experienced self-service users tend to express a common complaint. They say that too many systems waste their time. When asked to explain, they usually provide examples and say things like the following:

It seemed like they were trying to make the thing seem smarter than me.
I called the company's 800 number, and the first thing they tell me is to go use their Web site. The machine answered and said, 'Your call is very important to us.' What kind of fool do they think I am?
Why does she make me do something or say something special just to speak English? That gets my goat.
The thing told me to speak naturally, like I was talking to a person, but then could not understand every other thing that I said.

If it is true that users are ever impressed by the technologies behind VUIs, those good impressions are certainly short-lived. No matter how intelligent the system may have originally appeared to the user, experience quickly exhausts the novelty. The design that initially appeared intelligent soon becomes canned, artificial, even silly and annoying. Just as users see through the insincerity of being told by a machine that their call is important, they also resent having to state a language preference, listen to Web ads, and play along with the game of attempting natural conversation. Users see all of these things as a waste of their time. They just want to do whatever they called to do. They do not want to play games.

Proper Persona
Overly animated or excessively empathetic personas may represent the most egregious example of company and customer working at cross-purposes. The company wants to present the customer with a nice image of itself. Often, a lot of work and many marketing dollars go into creating this image.

Very few users appreciate the effort, though. Interacting with a persona can itself become an annoying game for many, if not most, users. Persona variables seldom make a system easier to use; and there is mounting evidence that persona excesses can sour an otherwise acceptable user experience.

Walter Rolandi is founder and owner of The Voice User Interface Co. in Columbia, S.C. He provides consultative services in the design, development, and evaluation of telephony-based voice user interfaces and evaluates ASR, TTS, and conversational dialogue technologies. He can be reached at wrolandi@wrolandi.com.

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