Are You Working Hard to Suck Less?

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The title of this column is a hilarious fake mission statement I heard the other day. I’m a fan of bad-attitude humor, and although I suspect this phrase has been around the block a few times, I managed to track it down to someone’s blog (workhardsuckless.blogspot.com). Aside from the chuckle, this phrase got me thinking about speech technology, voice user interface (VUI) design, what the world thinks of our profession, and how we see ourselves.

It’s a sad cliché that some of us in the speech and interactive voice response (IVR) business don’t like to admit to the kind of work we do. At the neighborhood barbeque or your kid’s soccer game, when folks find out you work on automated telephone systems, they’re either disappointed or downright angry, depending on how well you know each other and how much time they’ve wasted in poorly designed IVRs. I can hold my head up only by telling people it’s my job to make these systems as clear, quick, and intuitive as possible. Most people are astonished that such a job exists—that someone actually designed the system to be like this. Really? 

Yes, every once in a while I meet someone who has positive associations with an IVR system, but even then they always describe it as an anomaly: “Actually, I really like the Acme Widgets phone system.” It’s notable that a system exists that they like because the assumed default position is that everyone hates all IVRs. The question is, why? 

After more than a decade of SpeechTEK conferences during which we share knowledge and tons of experience deploying big commercial speech applications, are our speech applications still that bad? In some sense they must be failing to meet people’s expectations, or public opinion would be trending in our favor by now.

It’s easy for a VUI designer to get dispirited in the face of negative public sentiment and just coast along trying to make sure the applications she designs “suck less.” It’s especially easy to fall into this mindset when much of what’s wrong with IVRs isn’t bad VUI; it’s bad business strategy. 

The 2008 Alignment Index, an ongoing project by Dimension Data and Cisco, cites a lack of computer-telephony integration (37 percent) as the top complaint users have with IVRs, followed rather distantly by poor recognition performance, an inability to skip ahead, and a lack of alternative means of contact. Note that there’s only one of these complaints that a VUI designer can address directly: the inability to skip ahead. We can encourage our clients to allow liberal use of barge-in, but even here the decision of what is required listening is made by the client, not the designer (and usually for regulatory and liability reasons). 

Make an Impact

The Alignment Index shows that we could make the biggest impact to overall user experience not by better design but by ensuring that callers don’t have to repeat themselves once they get to an agent. Though we’re not in control of whether a client has computer-telephony integration, as designers we can advocate for passing as much information as possible when the call is transferred to an agent, and we can strenuously avoid asking the caller for nonessential information. It surprises me every time I ask a client, “Why are we asking the caller to give us this information?” and they don’t have a clear answer. The Alignment Index data confirms the position I favor: Ask the caller for information strictly on a need-to-know basis—if we don’t absolutely need the information, don’t ask for it! 

I need to make clear that I’m not advocating for continuing to run on autopilot for design, just trying to suck less, since it’s not our fault that people hate IVRs. In fact, I want to make just the opposite point. Most designers would agree with the idea of not asking for information that you don’t need, but how many of us would be willing to go out and find or collect the data to support our position? 

In my humble opinion, we rely too much on so-called best practices and our position as experts. It’s not practical to suggest that we can collect primary data for every design decision we make for every application—we’d never get an application deployed! But we owe it to our clients, to our profession, and to the people who are forced to use our applications every day to keep pushing for the time and resources to make informed design decisions. Without research, VUI design advances by trial and error; by demanding data to back up design decisions, we are on the path to working hard not for speech applications that suck less, but for designing self-service tools that people are happy to use. 

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is vice president of user experience at Product Support Solutions. She can be reached at shura@psshelp.com.

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