May I Have Your Attention, Please?

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Are customers paying attention when they call your IVR? I started thinking about this after listening to some recorded calls into a client's IVR. I heard typing, papers rustling, the noise from a television, and other conversations. The callers themselves were often engaged in side conversations trying to find information they'd need to complete the call ("Honey? Where's that credit card statement?") or just carrying on the business of daily life ("Anna, give her back her toy!"). It often seems like callers are devoting only a portion of their attention to interacting with the IVR, and basic principles of human cognition make me think this must have some effect on the interaction.

In the Web design world, attention is a big deal. Organizations care about what customers are paying attention to when they look at their Web sites. Attention is measured in a technique borrowed from research psychology, called eye tracking, which uses specialized software that follows the customer's gaze as he looks at a Web page. Results of eye tracking studies can offer explanations for patterns of customers' behavior. If your desire is to sell more widgets but your customers aren't looking at the "Buy Now!" button, some redesign might be in order.

Attention is rarely discussed when designing speech interactions, and the default assumption seems to be a fully attentive caller. The prevalence of mobile phones allows people to make calls from any environment—even loud, busy ones that require at least some attention to navigate—and multitasking is so much a part of daily life that it's a bad assumption to think that callers are fully attentive to the IVR interaction.

How do we design IVRs that fit the needs of customers with divided attention? To begin, we must ensure that we maximize the opportunity for customers to get information that's essential to completing their tasks. In the GUI world, this is about optimizing visual scan, making the important stuff easy to see through proper use of color, font, size, and placement on the page. In audio-only interactions, attention is not about scanning lots of information presented simultaneously (as it is on a Web page); instead, we need to find ways to make the important information stand out as it is presented linearly. Because we can only say one thing at a time, the goal for IVRs is to make sure customers notice and retain the relevant information. What are our tools for doing this?

  • Favor brief, simple prompts. Eliminate any wording that doesn't add to the caller's comprehension of the prompt or the flow of conversation.
  • Use progressive disclosure to offer additional instruction or information only when there's evidence it's needed. For instance, an initial prompt might simply request a date of birth, but following an error, the reprompt could model appropriate responses: Please tell me the date of birth, like June 15, 1958, or enter it as zero-six, one-five, one-nine-five-eight.
  • Use proactive messaging to highlight relevant information to callers whenever possible. Customer account history often reveals a likely reason the customer is calling; if the customer just placed an order, order status is likely the purpose of the call. Proactively telling the customer that his order was processed and is scheduled to ship tomorrow, for instance, increases the likelihood that he will find and devote attention to this information.
  • Make the IVR more tolerant of errors. Distracted callers might need more time to respond and might be more likely to engage in side speech that the IVR mistakenly treats as a response. Meticulously studying recognition logs and listening to whole call recordings is essential to understanding if lack of attention is causing more errors in your IVR, which is the first step in modifying typical error-handling strategies for distracted customers.

The next time you're people-watching, see if you can spot people interacting with IVRs and make note of what else they're doing simultaneously. Distracted callers are a fact of life, and organizations that want to continue reaping benefits from their IVRs need to adjust the interaction to suit their needs.

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is a principal and founder of SpeechUsability, a VUI design consulting firm. She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

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