What Counts as VUI?
Voice user interface (VUI) design is a hybrid profession, requiring both creative and scientific skills. Some VUI designers focus more on the creative, emphasizing the sound and feel of a system from the user’s perspective; others have a behavioral science perspective and make design decisions based on linguistic and psychological principles and user data. Most VUI designers acknowledge the importance of both in effective VUI design. In this column, though, I’ll focus instead on two more controversial areas that have a huge impact on VUI, but are sometimes treated as outside the purview of a VUI designer.
The first, multichannel user experience, needs less introduction because the VUI design community has long been aware of ways other interaction channels can impact a VUI. Most VUI designers regard it as a best practice to visit an organization’s Web site and review its print materials before designing its VUI. Increasingly, outbound messaging and mobile interfaces are also there for us to investigate. From our nonuser perspective, the channels seem distinct because different teams are responsible for each piece of the user experience. Users, however, view the interaction media holistically as various methods to communicate with an organization.
With a multichannel review, VUI designers can learn a few details that might help them write more effective prompts (Your account number is printed on your statement right under your name) or a bit about terminology (e.g., we call it "service call" online, but "service order" in the interactive voice response system). This sort of disjunction among channels is fairly common, but I recently encountered a situation that demonstrates an even greater degree of disparity. This disjunction demonstrated to me the importance of the second area that designers sometimes ignore: business logic.
At the organization in question, some customers are offered arrangements to pay off their debts over time. During discovery, we tried to understand the rules around payment arrangements. In the process, we were told that some customers engaged in what the company called "shopping" to obtain the most favorable payment arrangements. The business rules governing payment arrangements were different for the same individuals in the same circumstances depending on whether they contacted the organization via the Web, IVR, or agent. Some customers figured this out and tried each channel successively until they found the payment arrangement they wanted. Customers discovered the loophole in the company’s business logic and were exploiting it, generating more calls to the call center.
If this isn’t a reason to ferret out the details of business logic, I don’t know what is. Of course, designers should seek full disclosure of business rules to understand all of the situations that a user might encounter in the IVR, but we should also make sure to investigate whether business rules are the same for various communication channels.
Finally, let me switch gears back to the question I posed in my column "Getting Users to Do What We Want" (September 2008). Recall that I presented two prompts designed to encourage users to make a selection in the IVR to route them to the appropriate agent pool. The prompts were used with similar audiences in customer service applications in the same situation—when the caller requests an agent before providing enough information to route the call. The only difference between the prompts was wording and how each influenced users’ perceptions of why they were being asked to make a selection. For the first prompt (OK, I can transfer you to an agent after you make a selection), we noted a very odd pattern: Many users selected what we knew to be low-frequency options, randomly responding with the last option they heard before requesting an agent. The reason behind this odd pattern became clear once we studied responses to the second prompt (OK, I’ll get you to an agent, but first please tell me if you need help with A, B, C, or D). Users in this case successfully and happily made appropriate selections and were almost always routed correctly; this prompt obviously motivates users to make a good choice because there is a direct benefit to them. The same benefit exists for the first prompt, but the wording makes the selection seem like just another hoop they must jump through for the sake of the automated system.
Many users have an adversarial attitude toward automation and need a bit of cajoling to cooperate. VUI designers are user advocates and support users’ needs and preferences, but have to make sure this comes through in the prompts. Using positive, encouraging wording can subtly influence users’ attitudes and get them to view automation as a tool for accomplishing their goals rather than as a barrier between them and a live agent.
Susan Hura, Ph.D., is vice president of user experience at Product Support Solutions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.