The gethuman Factor

"Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future; practice these acts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things— to help, or at least to do no harm." -Hippocrates

Much of the tone of SpeechTEK 2006, held in New York this summer, was set by its opening keynote address. In the presentation, Paul English, founder of gethuman.com, outlined some of the desirable characteristics of a "gethuman standard" for self-service systems. Some of the proposed features closely reflect already acknowledged, if not always adhered to, industry best practices. Many suggested standards would be easy and inexpensive to implement. Still other standards will require changes in call center infrastructure and, for that matter, the way some corporations perceive their fundamental customer service obligations.

Mixed Reactions

From my own informal sampling of attendees, reaction to the presentation took two basic forms. One was basically an affirmative (if tentatively supportive) reaction. The other was defensive and dismissively critical.

The affirmative reaction could be described as supportive of the overall goals but cautious about the final details of the standard. There was also a sense of reluctance on the part of representatives of this group to say anything that would appear negative about the standard and the overall consumer movement that gethuman represents.

The defensive reaction was less cautionary. Those in this group openly criticized the standard, scoffed at the movement, and aggressively defended the status quo.

Reaction to Reactions

I completely understand the affirmative reaction. After all, many voice user interface (VUI) designers will (in private, at least) admit that user needs often play a secondary role in the design and deployment of call center IVRs. Corporate goals and IT realities usually carry more weight when it comes to making IVR design decisions. I can also appreciate any reluctance to criticize the movement. Who, after all, would like to run the risk of being publicly perceived as anti-user or anti-consumer?

I cannot understand the defensive reaction at all. Furthermore, I think that those reacting in this way are profoundly out of touch with the realities of the situation. Some fail to realize that the gethuman movement is not just about self-service, speech systems, or IVR. The movement is primarily a consumer revolt against the terrible state of customer service in the United States today. Consumers have had it with the indignities of interminable hold times, incompetent or rude customer service representatives, and CSRs who are not capable of clearly communicating in English. Poorly designed, confusing, and annoying self-service systems are only one part of the overall problem and speech industry people are wrong to assume that their technologies and practices are the primary target of the movement.

Yet, the gethuman movement does have much to say about what is wrong with today's IVRs. Ironically, we in the speech industry have already heard most of what it is being said. For example, most in the industry would neither deny callers the ability to reach a human nor would they disconnect users when users make too many mistakes. In fact, some of the specific suggestions described by English during the keynote have been recognized best practices for many, many years.

Why Standards Matter

Unfortunately, for one reason or another, too many of our industry's best practices as well as some of our more benign IVR design conventions are still unacceptably evident out in the field. Far too many companies are still more interested in the cost savings afforded by an IVR than in how easy an IVR is to use or even how well the IVR meets the needs of its users. It is time for such owners of IVRs to rethink their priorities.

Paul English's work and the gethuman movement actually represent a tremendous opportunity for the speech industry. It is an unprecedented opportunity to listen to consumers, address their concerns, and get VUIs right. I encourage all in the industry to rise to the occasion and find a way to help. If they choose not to help, they are likely to cause more harm.

Walter Rolandi 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 and evaluates ASR, TTS, and conversational dialogue technologies. He can be reached at wrolandi@wrolandi.com.

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