Do Your Users Feel Silly?
Man and Bird Years ago, I was telling a friend about my long-standing interest in the animal language debate. I had studied bee signaling systems, bird songs and a number of attempts to establish various forms of verbal behavior in chimpanzees. I told my friend that some of the communicative abilities of several species are truly amazing but that drawing anthropomorphic conclusions about the abilities would be a mistake. He nodded, chuckled and proceeded to describe a transaction he had witnessed years earlier involving his college roommate. He and the roommate had walked into a pet shop, just to pass some time. Approaching the bird section, the roommate paused by the cage of a big, beautiful, blue and green parrot. § Parrot: Hello! §Roommate: (surprised and drawn-in with interest) Well, hello to you too! §Parrot: Berrock! Whats your name? §Roommate: (delighted and further intrigued) My name is Frank. Whats your name? §Parrot: My name is Polly. Berrock! §Roommate: (now amazed and enthralled) I cant believe it! A real, live talking bird! Dont you want to get out of that cage? §Parrot: Berrock! Hello! §Roommate: (looking around the shop to see who had witnessed his being suckered in by a bird brain) Oh shut up, you stupid bird! §Parrot: Berrock! My name is Polly. Berrock! §Roommate: (leaves the area) This vignette frequently comes to mind when talking to clients about the pitfalls of voice user interface design. And while the connection between imitative speech in birds and basic voice user interface design might not be immediately obvious, the story can actually teach us a number of things. The story provides an example of someone being made to feel silly. It also illustrates the circumstances leading up to and the consequences following the experience. Expectation Setting The trouble begins with just one little word. A bird says Hello! and thereby sets an expectation for a cultural-template conversational exchange. People hear and say Hello almost everyday and whether hearing it or saying it, they are primed to expect some predictable conversational behavior to follow. Conspiring Circumstances Whats more, the fact that the source of the Hello is so atypical tends to heighten interest on the part of the listener. Again, exchanging hellos with other people is commonplace and predictable. Exchanging hellos with a bird is unusual and thereby less predictable. Such oddities always demand greater attention and interest. In fact, the atypicality of the experience can itself be intrinsically reinforcing. Circumstances simultaneously conspire to establish two formidable expectations: 1)The expectation of a human-like conversational exchange and, 2)The expectation that because this exchange involves a special, non-human conversationalist, it promises to be more interesting than usual. Upping the Stakes Additionally, and unfortunately, the second expectation raises the stakes if it cannot be met. With the promise of greater satisfaction comes the risk of greater disappointment. Keep in mind, all this as a consequence of a bird saying one two-syllable utterance. What follows after the two-syllable utterance only serves to make things worse. The next two bird utterances are situationally appropriate and apparently intelligent. They thus reinforce the expectations set by Hello and further raise the degree of disappointment that will follow a let down. Everything the bird has said widens the listeners sense that he is in the presence of a competent, indeed amazing, conversationalist. The Face-Losing Let Down Just when the human thought that the sky was the limit for this feathered interlocutor, the conversation completely crashes to the ground. By repeating itself, the parrot immediately imparts that: 1)The parrot has been clueless all along and therefore: 2)The human has been acting like a fool all along. The human feels silly and loses face. And these emotions quickly give rise to an angry reaction. Man and Machine The relevance of all this should be apparent to people working in dialog design. The fact is that human-like conversational designs and perky personas run a similar risk of setting the same expectations among users. And they are just as likely to make a user feel silly. So ask yourself the question: Can my design make my user feel silly?. Just as silly leads to anger, anger leads to avoidance. And if your users feel silly, they wont be your users for long.