With Voice Design, Putting Callers First Is Always a Best Practice

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I want to begin by thanking my friend, colleague, and mentor Vicki Broman, who recently retired from ttec—and from writing columns in this space. Having spent the past 20 years designing speech-enabled applications, I had become fairly set in my ways, but in just seven months of working with her, I became a better designer, as she challenged me to rethink everything I thought I knew about best practices in voice user interface design. And as I inherit this column from her, I can’t think of a more appropriate topic. 

When I interviewed with Vicki last year, she asked me to talk about VUI best practices. I answered, “My favorite thing about best practices is that there are so many to choose from.” That answer began a running dialogue that will no doubt continue for years. 

We compiled a list of more than 25 best practices. And we came up with exceptions for almost every one. Our conversations followed a pattern. If I said, “Always present options based on the frequency of selection,” she said, “Except for an emergency like a gas leak—sometimes state law requires it be first.” If she said, “Always use the same voice,” I said, “I find that using a different voice for ‘please hold while your call is connected’ gives the perception of a shorter IVR experience.” She might then counter with, “Don’t say ‘please’—be clear, concise, and quick.”

Best practices have evolved over time. Early ACD systems that were used to route callers to the correct department ended every menu with “…or press zero to speak to an operator.” When the first touch-tone self-service IVRs arrived, the practice continued. With speech recognition systems, callers still press zero. They also say “operator,” “agent,” “customer service,” and sometimes “talk to a person.” The agent option is also usually the last one played, so if callers are unsure which option to choose, they latch on to the last thing they heard that will definitely get them what they need. In one deployment for a financial services firm, we found that more than 40% of callers went that route.

At one point, to increase call containment, designers removed zero from the options and operator synonyms from grammars. This trapped callers in IVR purgatory. Caller backlash and customer satisfaction surveys forced us to reconsider. It took years to find the right balance. Today the ttec best practice is to allow but not announce or advertise options for transferring to an agent. 

Another example of evolving best practices is context-sensitive help prompts. For years, it was a best practice to include “help” as a universal command to provide more information about a menu or data request. In the past 10 years, designers have learned to simplify menus and ask better questions, making help prompts unnecessary. We also learned to use escalating error recovery prompts in an effort to contain calls without overly frustrating callers. 

Callers change over time, and best practices must change with them. It used to be a best practice to require callers to log in only when their transaction required it. But customers have grown accustomed to logging in first and then choosing what to do. This offers incredible opportunities to provide a better customer experience. If we know who is calling, we can use dynamic menus to present only the options they need. We can also predict why they are calling and use smart prompting to proactively offer information and options for each customer. If the caller has an upcoming repair appointment, ask “Is that why you are calling?” Is a payment due on the account in the next few days? Offer payment options right up front. 

In the end, one best practice will never change: caller-centric design. All best practices emerge from the idea of designing a system that is easy to use. If you want to increase self-service rates in your IVR, don’t trap callers there; they will find a way to escape. Instead, make the system clear, concise, and quick. Put as few barriers (and as few words) as possible between your customer and the task they need to perform. If you know your callers and give them what they want, you’ll also be giving them the best experience possible. 

Eric Soderstrom is a UI design architect with ttec, formerly eLoyalty. 

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