Speech Technology Must Address Users' Needs

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Technology that does not address users' needs and interests first will often struggle to gain user adoption. This may sound obvious, but it's one of the reasons the speech technology industry has struggled to achieve mainstream acceptance over the years. A couple of personal experiences illustrate my point.

On a Saturday morning in mid-April, I embarked on a road trip from New York to Virginia for a business dinner. Opting to rent a car, I hopped in a cab and headed to a Budget Rent A Car System branch to pick one up. I had the address. I knew the branch was in a nearby town on a major thoroughfare, so I didn't expect any trouble finding it. Mistake. The cab driver and I couldn't find it. So I called Budget for help.

After I was sent around an IVR maze, the call was disconnected. So I called back, thinking I might have better luck. Nope. I proceeded to get lost in the same maze. Frustrated, I requested a live agent. But by the time the agent picked up the phone, we were pulling into the car lot. (As it turned out, we kept driving past the lot because the Budget sign was so small we could barely read it from the road.)

The company's main reason for investing in an IVR was not to improve customer satisfaction; it was to lower support costs. As a result, I had a frustrating experience, the speech-enabled IVR didn't help me complete my task, and I wasted the company's money handling the call. The interaction was a failure.

On the contrary, the experience I had with my speech-enabled GPS application on my smartphone was very good. Except for a 30-minute detour, Google Maps with voice-enabled turn-by-turn navigation was very accurate and helped me find my destination. Because I was driving far outside of my comfort zone, I was mildly concerned about finding the restaurant and meeting everyone on time. But with each leg of the trip, the speech-enabled GPS application set me more at ease.

Fortunately, we're seeing more examples of speech technology that offer significant value for those who use them. This doesn't bode well for technologies, such as IVRs, that don't consider users' interests and needs first.

In fact, in the column "Assessing Speech-Enabled Help Apps," Jim Larson states, "IVR systems are not a long-term solution. They will remain in use until the majority of customers obtain mobile devices. Future development of voice-only IVR applications seems limited because they are being supplemented or replaced by the following sources of help"--mobile devices, multimodal applications, and intelligent agent software.

When technology provides value to those who use it, tremendous opportunities are created. Some of which, including developments in electronic health records, voice-based microblogging, and enterprise virtual assistants, are covered in this issue.

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