Speech Poised to Dominate the Mobile Market

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NEW YORK — In Bill Meisel’s vision of the future, the main interface with any phone on the market will be voice.

Meisel, president of TMA Associates, laid out a fairly positive assessment of speech technology’s future during his August 25 session at SpeechTEK 2009, maintaining that in the future visual and textual modes will be “alternative and supplementary” to speech. He also said the largely negative view the masses have of speech is dissipating, and will continue to do so.

Meisel acknowledged that in its early contact with mainstream users, speech saw bad implementations and bad design—particularly in the interactive voice response (IVR) space—that hurt public perceptions of its abilities. However, he pointed to a number of recent, high-profile speech applications, like Google’s free directory assistance, GOOG-411, and Microsoft’s collaboration with Ford Motors on Sync, as products that are proving useful and likeable to a wide swath of consumers.

“Impressions are changed by more friendly applications,” he said. “People are now seeing speech recognition in more places, like the car, and they’re getting more familiar.”

He pointed out that Ford sells twice as many cars with Sync than without and that Apple has made speech capabilities on its iPod one of its main sells in promotional materials.

With regard to his statement that phones will be operated primarily via voice, Meisel explained that phones are becoming integral parts of everyday life. As he and others expect phones to do more, graphic interfaces on phones—largely mobile analogs of Web interfaces, in his estimation—are going to get visually cluttered with their own multifarious functionalities. They will, in short, become untenable to maintain.

“Voice is going to be the dominant interface instead of navigating 28 icons,” Meisel insisted. 

Moreover, he added that users aren’t looking for a personal computer on their phones. “They have enough trouble with that,” he said.

Meisel was joined in the session by Philip Hunter, principal strategist and designer at Design-Outloud. Hunter had his own vision for the future of speech and the end user. His focus was directed at contact centers and IVRs. Hunter, however, left technological issues aside and fixed his sights squarely on the user experience.

“I think we’ve done a lot [on the technology side] over the past few years, and maybe enough for the time being. I want to focus on how we’re using it,” Hunter said.

He argued that advances in technology are mostly invisible to end users. “Speech is the same as DTMF,” he said. “The interaction style is the same, but our customers don’t really care when it comes to interaction. Interaction modalities are the same as others.”

What makes a difference in customer experience is how useful and easy a system is, not the underlying technology. Too often, Hunter said, enterprises focus on technological solutions to problems that might be handled more effectively with better design. He took the problem of callers becoming frustrated and angry, for instance, and asked why an enterprise should spend a significant amount of money to install emotion-detection capabilities to route callers to an agent rather than trying to figure out what caused the hostility in the first place and deal with it head on.

Hunter pointed to a statistic that Paul Greenberg, president of the 56 Group, noted in his opening keynote August 24: Only about one-third of contact center callers expect to be satisfied. “That’s a horrifying statistic,” Hunter said.

Both he and Meisel agree that contact centers that don’t work hard to give customers a quality experience are missing out on major opportunities to build customer relationships. These disaffected callers are also customers, Hunter declared. They’re already buying from a given enterprise, and if they were handled properly, then they might be enticed to buy more.

Meisel, for his part, went as far as suggesting that maybe a portion of an enterprise’s advertising budget and creative staff should be allocated to the contact center. He pointed out that these centers are getting billions of voluntary calls that remain largely unexploited. 

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