• January 5, 2011
  • By Melanie Polkosky Human Factors Psychologist & Consultant - IBM/Center for Multimedia Arts (University of Memphis)
  • Interact

The Hooptedoodle of Phone

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Almost a decade ago, Elmore Leonard participated in a “Writers on Writing” series for The New York Times. Leonard, well-known for his excellence in dialogue, offered 10 tips about writing that happen to naturally align themselves with what we do as script designers. For me, the parallels were too obvious to ignore.

I’ve generally felt little but disdain for so-called “best practices” in IVR dialogue scripting. As a writer, scripting an automated system is constraining enough, so I’m not tempted to have rules straightjacket me even more. That said, there is something ridiculously helpful in reading what writers have to say about their craft, and all of us have our own rules of thumb that guide us in the creative process. Thus, with infinite apologies to Mr. Leonard, I offer my own recasting of his 10 tips:

1. Never open with platitudes: It only signals antagonism for the listener to utter something as trite as, Please listen carefully as our options have changed. The listener is more apt to roll his eyes in exasperation and stop listening altogether. It creates atmosphere for your interaction, no more positive than a book that begins, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

2. Avoid verbal landmarks: They are annoying. People lack the energy or desire to simultaneously re-create a flowchart in their minds while marching through a phone system. The dialogue itself should get them where they need to go; if you need to create signs to get around, then your tree has become a forest, and you should expect people to get lost.

3. Never order a customer to do anything: Directives are the mark of customer service overstepping its bounds. Requests cloaked in the language of demands do not endear themselves to the customer; in contrast, they are an invitation to seek a new provider. The designer is sticking his nose in, as if he has a power he does not possess.

4. Never use multiple words and phrases when fewer will suffice: As Leonard suggests, overly verbose language usage is the designer “now exposing himself in earnest.” When a designer excessively sprinkles his words, he risks being invasive, overbearing, and full of himself. The only people who think an IVR should say much of anything at all are the people behind it; the extent to which they lack self-control determines whether they will be the only ones willing to participate in the exchange.

5. Keep your turns under control: The number of turns is usually inversely proportional to usability. If an interaction requires more than about four turns to get someone where they’re going, then it becomes increasingly likely the user will seek a shorter or alternate path.

6. Never use the phrases “in order to” or “choose from the following options”: These phrases are the mark of a writer who doesn’t understand his medium (spoken communication) or lacks imagination. Such phrases are more appropriately placed in written academic papers, legal documentation, medical reports, and other writings of that ilk.

7. Use technical jargon—marketing patois—sparingly or not at all: Once you use some fancy terms simply because they appeared in a marketing brochure in 1996, you won’t be able to stop. It’s a form of self-congratulation on your effectiveness. A company’s usage of a slick, new term does not imply customer comprehension of it.

8. Avoid legal explanations: True, legalese serves a protective function, but it also characterizes an organization in a generally unflattering light.

9. Don’t go into detail explaining why you can’t do what the user wants: These details, provided in the impersonal context of an IVR, only reinforce the perception of poor customer service. If you want to retain customers, then give them what they want, quickly and without fanfare. If you can’t accommodate a customer request, then the most appropriate response is apology and restitution.

10. Try to leave out the part that users tend to ignore: Think of what you ignore when you’re talking on the phone: long, extended stories that meander around, spiraling off into subplots and minor characters, taking up your precious time. What the speaker is doing is perpetrating a monologue where a dialogue was supposed to exist. I’ll bet your mind wanders through most of it.
And, like Leonard, my most important rule sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Melanie Polkosky, Ph.D., is a social-cognitive psychologist and speech language pathologist who has researched and designed speech, graphics, and multimedia user experiences for almost 15 years. She is currently a human factors psychologist and senior consultant at IBM. She can be reached at polkosky@comcast.net.

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