The Persona Craze Nears an End

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Fellow speech industry consultants have been predicting the demise of the animated, entertainment-oriented persona for some time. Thankfully, there are increasing signs that the end is now approaching. Hyped for marketing reasons that have nothing to do with system effectiveness, the persona fad may be finally running out of steam.

It is not that any and all personae are bad. In fact, personae run the gamut from the benign and business-like to the unbearably bubbly. While subtle persona variables, which might be present in even the benign and businesslike, can also irritate users, it is the excesses that are typically found in the bubbly and animated personae that can absolutely infuriate those who call into the system.

Strangely enough, the promoters and defenders of these over-the-top personae fail—or refuse—to recognize just how powerfully annoying these things can be. The situation has left many IVR owners out on a limb: they drank the Kool-Aid and bought into the myth. They invested considerable time and money creating their corporate personae, and they were very proud of them at first. However, user feedback is now filtering in and the word that they are receiving is that users don’t like them.

Not Hard to Tell

Are you concerned that you may have drank the Kool- Aid too? If so, how can you tell if your persona is over the top and annoying to your customers? The simple answer is to conduct observational usability testing.

In an observational usability test, an analyst audits actual interactions between an application and its users. This data is then mined for variables like speech recognition errors, confusion states, impatient barge-ins, expletives, and other emotional responses. The numbers alone can tell the story, but nothing is more undeniable than data that shows angry users lashing out against a system that has annoyed them.

So what can you do if your persona is causing pain to customers or potential customers calling into your IVR? Fortunately, repairing an overly perky persona can often be a relatively easy process.

I routinely perform speech application diagnostic services that, among many other variables, evaluate the persona of the application. Given that the annoying characteristics of many personae are easy to demonstrate, I am increasingly called upon to de-animate the excessively emotive ones among them. This sort of intervention does not often require serious surgery. In fact, many of the annoying variables can be removed or otherwise blunted by fairly superficial changes in prompt content and intonation.

That being said, I do not wish to trivialize the de-animation of an over-the-top persona. There is a very real relationship between the experience of speech recognition errors and other setbacks in the user experience and the power of a persona to irritate a user. In the diagnostic and repair
work that I do, I almost always have to address these issues as well.

Whether the end has finally come for the emotive persona remains to be seen. Some industry entities still actively promote the idea and I suppose that means that someone, somewhere, must still be listening.

To those still pondering the persona proposition, I ask that you consider some simple facts.
An inappropriate persona can do the following:
• establish unrealistic user expectations;
• distract a user who would otherwise be focused on task completion;
• annoy a user with its socially inappropriate emotionality; and
• add insult to injury when a session goes bad.

And lest we forget, even an appropriate persona cannot:
• make a dysfunctional application functional;
• add value to a questionable value proposition; or
• make an unusable application more usable. 

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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