D-I-Y- or B-U-Y

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"If a company is deploying [an IVR] as the first application they’ve done, for me it’s really important to engage someone who has some experience," Olvera states. "They will know what to expect, and chances are most people won’t know what to expect. Really deploying an IVR and introducing it to consumers is straightforward at this point, but if you’re introducing speech, you need to know or have someone in your team who knows how to introduce that to customers."

This, however, is an ideal. While companies may throw money at marketing initiatives, the IVR is not always viewed as a means to drive customer loyalty or retention. Therefore, the IVR can sometimes be an afterthought, something simply assigned to the same developers who crafted the system, but who may not have experience with VUI design. Until recently, VUI designers or IVR developers had no tools with which they could graphically express their ideas. Then came products like Voxeo’s Designer and Microsoft Speech Server, both of which allow companies to build an IVR dialogue flow using a graphical interface. Users can literally drop a transfer to operator command within a call tree being constructed on the computer screen. While the products help democratize the space, Voxeo and Microsoft have different views as to how their DIY products should be used. For Voxeo’s Jose deCastro, Designer’s lead architect, it’s all about companies getting their foot in the front door.

"These professional services companies are in abundance, and there is a lot of possibility to negotiate per volume," deCastro says. "Either way, there’s a pretty high cost to entry. What Designer is about is that we allow people to come in with low cost-to-entry, prototype their applications, get [an application] to 80 [percent] to 90 percent to where they want them, and then have professional services come in."

Another way to approach the topic of DIY VUI design is by comparing VoiceXML to HTML coding or a program like Visual Basic. While VoiceXML is the language with which speech technology developers design IVR systems, it is not as well-known as HTML. Some, however, view the skill set as transferable. This is what Microsoft’s Speech Server developers thought when rolling out their DIY IVR software. Like Voxeo’s Designer, Speech Server lets customers build their own IVR, but rather than push for professional services after developing the system, Microsoft wants its users to become educated. Albert Kooiman, senior business development manager at Microsoft Speech Server, says his company wants to break down the borders of the IVR’s old guard.

"If you look at [Speech Server] now, the people we are targeting are not the typical IVR telephony people; we are very much targeting the .NET developer—the people who use Visual Studio day in and day out," Kooiman says. "The message we’re trying to get across to them is that everyone who can write a Visual Basic, .NET, or C-Sharp program can actually build speech IVR apps for self-service over the telephone."

Statements like this make designers like Olvera nervous—more inexperienced people creating poorly planned IVRs.

"When [Microsoft] released Speech Server, that was their motto: ‘Our Web developers can now develop your speech applications,’" Olvera says. "They really believe that since you’re a developer you can develop a VUI application. It’s very different. One is visual and one is audible."

Bolster Your Staff
The best laid plans in VUI design and IVR deployment are the most simple. While the move to speechify a system may gain momentum quickly, experts advise taking things slowly from the beginning. Rather than rush to automate every aspect of a business, Olvera says a company needs to learn how to do basic functions first. This holds especially true for small to midsize businesses (SMBs).

"If you’re an SMB, don’t try to do everything at once," Olvera notes. "Concentrate on the low-hanging fruits—the features that give you the most bang for your buck, that you can automate well— and just go with that."

He also stresses keeping the technical aspects of the implementation in mind. Larger companies, for example, may face extra challenges in integrating the IVR with other systems. In this case, Olvera says it’s usually best to bring in the vendor that sold a company its systems because the vendor has more experience with its own products. SMBs, however, usually require only minor tweaks that an independent or freelance consultant can handle.

The type of IVR also depends on the level of involvement needed from outside sources. While natural language and directed dialogue require more planning, systems like dual-tone multifrequency (DTMF), which operate using touch tones, are often less complex. Hura concedes that most DTMF systems do not require outside help, but the more labor-intensive speech systems do.

For large companies deploying new IVRs, Hura also recommends assembling an in-house speech team when building a new system. In this case, a business could even hire someone who has experience with VUI design.

"Having someone who has ownership of the IVR within your company is a really important thing," she says. "One of the dangers of just going with the [outside] experts is that they hand over your stuff, they get your app up and running, and then you don’t have anyone on your staff who says, ‘This is mine,’ who is the primary form of contact. If you don’t choose to do it yourself, you still do need to have somebody who is going to be the primary person [in charge of the IVR]."

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