The More Things Change...

Recently, I had a customer service problem that obliged me to call customer service. I heard the company had recently implemented a speech recognition self-service system and I was curious to see how converting to speech would improve its self-service process. I was shocked when my call was answered with the following: "Thank you for calling the Acme Company. Please pay careful attention because our menu options have recently changed."

How is it that a tired, old interactive voice response (IVR) chestnut found itself in a recently minted speech application? For that matter, how did it originate and why would anyone want to use such a prompt in the first place?

I can only speculate as to its actual origin but I like to imagine that someone originally proposed, "Please pay careful attention because our menu options have recently changed" as a method for reducing data entry errors in Dual Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF) IVRs. I suspect that their thinking went something like this: Too many users are making errors in our IVR. Some of these errors could be eliminated or avoided if users would only listen to the prompts more carefully. Let's tell our users that our system has changed and warn them to pay special attention.

It sounded like a good idea at the time. And somehow, this prompt caught on, becoming a small IVR phenomenon.

So what's the problem? For the sake of argument, let's assume that the origin of the prompt that I outlined above is essentially accurate. If this were the case, there are several problems with its use. First, it is obviously untrue, because it cannot be perpetually true. Second, because it is obviously untrue, the prompt is patently and insultingly insincere. How many users would fail to see through the ruse, particularly if they are repeat callers? People know when they're being manipulated and they generally become very unhappy when they are insulted. Third, and most importantly, I suspect that no one has ever experimentally tested the effectiveness of the prompt. I suspect that someone dreamt it up years ago, imagined that it would be effective, inserted it into a system and assumed that it worked its magic. The practice came to the attention of other designers who adopted it unquestionably and its use spread like a virus. It persists today, presumably due to some sort of anthropological compulsion: designers use the prompt because other designers have used it before them.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe somebody, somewhere performed a well-controlled study that clearly revealed the effectiveness of the "please pay careful attention, because our menu options have recently changed," prompt. But somehow I doubt it.*

In any event, I was disheartened to hear this prompt in a newly deployed speech recognition system. Speech recognition technologies have the potential to overcome most of the limitations, annoyances, and bad practices that one finds in the DTMF IVR world. Yet these strengths will be lost if practitioners employ the technologies in ways that simply perpetuate the historical practices of the DTMF IVR space. It's a pity that some designers continue to use speech technologies in this way.

What is truly lamentable is that bad practices (like the "please pay careful attention…" prompt) are easy to spot and eliminate. That is, if designers would more rigorously test their designs.

* If you know of any data regarding the effects or the effectiveness of this kind of prompt, please contact me at: wrolandi@wrolandi.com.


is the founder and owner of The Voice User Interface Company in Columbia, S.C. 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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