Designing a Web Site? Learn from the Speech Business—Please!

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Longtime readers of this column will recall a certain air of worry, perhaps with a touch of pessimism, about the future of speech technology in a world dominated by websites, text messages, and social media platforms. In the past few days I’ve become quite a bit more optimistic.

As I write this, we’re deep into winter in Chicago, and—if you’re familiar with Illinois in general and Chicago in particular—you won’t be surprised to learn the city is stumbling as it tries to distribute vaccines for COVID-19. Apparently six months’ notice was not enough time to prepare.

As a consumer, someone who is trying to get an appointment for vaccination using websites from both government agencies and various companies, I’m struck by how absolutely and completely abysmal these sites are. Without exception, they waste my time and their time and do little except frustrate me.

Before we begin—and here’s the meat of the matter—imagine, if you would, an efficient phone operator who answers your call for a vaccination appointment. Perhaps they’d ask a few screening questions if you’re a first-time caller. If no appointments were available anywhere, they’d say so. If some were available, they’d ask for your zip code if they didn’t have it already, look up nearby vaccination sites, and offer you a range of options.

No doubt you’ve had a similar interaction in the past, perhaps when arranging for a medical test with a large multisite healthcare provider.

The corporate websites utterly fail to achieve this level of competence. In fact, they aren’t even close. I’ll now review the efforts of major corporations that should have a clue about putting together a website—and then review how a simple comparison with an intelligent attendant could improve their dismal designs.

(There is a lighter side to this. When I re-enacted these website interactions as if they were phone calls, my wife thought they were hysterically funny.)

Let’s start with Albertsons, which operates a chain of pharmacies across Illinois. Even though I’ve got a login, each time I visit, the site asks me what region I want to search and then asks me to certify that I’m eligible for a vaccine. I’m then directed to a new page. This page attempts to emulate a live chat session. First I have to choose from a drop-down menu what I want to accomplish, even though there’s only one choice. Then the system—first emulating slow typing by a live assistant—asks me to make another choice, again with only one option. Finally, the system asks me to choose among several pharmacies in my area. No pharmacy appears to offer any dates with appointments, for months in advance, as I try each pharmacy separately. So after about a dozen steps I’ve learned something that the website could have told me immediately: no appointments available within a 50-mile radius. And this is the fastest, least-annoying website I’ve found.

Compare this to a contact center. Then ask yourself these questions:

• Would an attendant ask me to make a choice when there’s only one choice? Twice?

• Would an attendant make me listen to fake typing noises just because it’s cute?

• Would an attendant require me to ask, for each pharmacy, whether there’s an appointment if the attendant already knows that no appointments are available?

• Wouldn’t an attendant know, as soon as I gave my zip code, that no appointments were available and stop me right there?

• In fact, wouldn’t an attendant know immediately from my caller ID and prior call history that I couldn’t get an appointment?

Albertsons would do well to compare its web page efficacy against that of a simple phone call.

Next up is Walmart, which also operates drug stores and claims it offers vaccines in the Chicago area. First I select a pharmacy from a list in the area; then I answer questions about eligibility; then I get another page telling me to bring proof of eligibility. I click through to a page that shows no appointments are available. To try another location, I have to re-enter the loop: select a pharmacy, answer questions about eligibility again, click through a notification, and eventually learn that no appointments are available. Again, again, and again.

Compare this to an attendant. I don’t believe I’ve ever spoken to an attendant who insisted that, if I’m searching for item X at branch Y and it’s not available there, I start the interaction over and restate that I’m looking for item X before the attendant searched for it at location Z.

Walgreens has me sign in with a login and password each time. Walgreens then asks me the same screening questions each time I log in, followed by another page of inquiries—mostly filled in with previous answers, but with a curious case of amnesia about whether I have insurance. Finally, I select which specific store I’d like to visit, and I’m offered a list of times. The system displays a week’s worth of days. To find an appointment, I have to click on a date, click on a time range for that date, and then find out that there are no appointments. There are six ranges and seven days, and to check for all possible appointments I must perform 42 different queries. For one store. And there’s a dozen stores I need to check.

I suppose I scarcely need to say it, but no one in their right mind would stick around for a phone call that sounds like a Monty Python skit:

“Would you like an appointment between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.?”


“Sorry, that’s not available. Would you like an appointment between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.?”


“Sorry, that’s not available. Would you like an appointment…”

Contact centers with live attendants or automated systems have high per-second costs. A poorly designed system confuses consumers, infuriates them, extends call times, and may drive callers away entirely. We’ve learned the hard way to think carefully about efficient use of caller and attendant time. Re-enacting a website as a phone call might help websites avoid egregiously ridiculous designs.

Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions. He can be reached at speech@pobox.com.

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