The Legal Threat to the Effective VUI

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers".
-William Shakespeare 

Nobody likes lawyers…

Nobody likes lawyers - as they say - at least not unless or until they find themselves in need of one.  Lawyers bear the brunt of numerous jokes and insults and their professional class is consistently judged to be among the least esteemed in our culture. 

Maybe some of this advocate animosity is due to the fact that laws and lawyers seem to be insinuated most everywhere in our everyday lives.  The intrusion is particularly obvious in corporate public communications materials.   Some examples:

  • Law determines most of the copy content in a printed description of a drug.  Well over half of a drug's product description information is written not by doctors or scientists but by lawyers. 
  • Fast-food coffee cups include printed warnings of possible danger. 
  • Voice user interfaces contain ominous, foreboding, legalistically-worded prompts that needlessly menace their users.

Exhibit A

Consider the following theoretical VUI scenarios:

Banking customer: "How much money is in my checking account?"
Banking IVR: "All account balances are quoted based on funds available on or before 1:00 p.m. on the day that the balance inquiry is made.  Deposits made subsequent to that time may not immediately appear and, in fact, may not appear for several business days, depending on the instrument of deposit.  Your balance is $529.78."
Insurance customer: "What is my medical office co-pay?"
Insurance IVR: "Policy particulars, benefits, deductibles and claims information is provided as a convenience only and is based on coverage in effect and on record at the time of the inquiry.  The information provided in no way constitutes a contractual promise to pay.   Your medical office co-pay is $20.00."
Utility Customer: "When is my next payment due?"
Utility IVR: "All payments received more than 48 hours after any payment due date are subject to a $15.00 late fee.  Please note that service will be disconnected for any account that is 30 days past due.  Your next payment is due on April 15th."


What's wrong with these scenarios?  Simply put, they contain obstacles to task completion.  Furthermore, such legal disclaimers are annoying and insulting to the user.

Anything that needlessly comes between the user and his task completion will frustrate the user.   In addition to being fundamentally annoying, IVR disclaimers and other legalistic prompt contents almost never help the user.  They are present solely to protect the company from litigation, presumably or potentially initiated by the user.  The insulting message to the user: 

Your satisfaction as a user and customer is less important to us than our fear of litigation, and for that matter, we distrust you.

Under any circumstances, this is a terrible message to convey to a customer.  And, unfortunately for the VUI designer, having to include prompt content in an IVR that contains such messages can significantly undermine an otherwise good user experience.

The Corporate Counselor as VUI Co-designer

Various professionals may play a role in scripting prompt content, yet of all the "contributors," directives from legal can sometimes cause the biggest headaches.  Often, the legal department carefully crafts every word of disclaimer prompts and even dictates where the messages must be read.

I appreciate the cumulative effect of case law, but I cannot believe that such exact and lengthy wording is truly necessary.   In any event, even if IVRs are condemned to contain such messages, why can't they be made elective for the user?  

In analogy, most of us have had the experience of installing a software application before.  During that process, we have been asked to click "I accept" or "I do not accept" in response to a box containing a complete and legally binding contract describing the conditions for using the software.   How many of us have ever actually read all that verbiage?  Most people simply click "I accept" and proceed.

The Prosecution Rests
It's a pity we live in such a litigious world, but surely the equivalent of an "I accept" is possible for the VUI world.   Consider the examples above.    Why precede the information readout with the disclaimers?  Why not simply follow the requested information readout with a generic "legal disclaimers may apply" message?  In any event, if menacing legalese prompts must in fact be present, why not make them always follow the information readout?  That way, the user, having already accomplished his task, can at least elect to hang up.

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

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