D-I-Y- or B-U-Y
In the 1990s, before the dot-com bubble burst and the Internet seemed an untamable, untapped wilderness, everyone wanted to cash in. It wasn’t just start-ups or venture capitalists looking to make a quick million. It was flocks of regular people, too. But rather than devising schemes to harp on e-commerce, the latter thought of the Web as another channel through which they could express themselves. Personal Web site providers like Angelfire, GeoCities, and AOL made that possible and inspired various demographics to stake their acreage within the Web landscape. Of course, all of this freedom came with a caveat: Sites created by amateurs weren’t guaranteed to be perfect. Design purists recoiled at animated .gif files, seemingly seizure-inducing color schemes, and pages upon pages of information of little use to anyone but the site’s creator. As the Web evolved, so did the demand for better content and site design. Industries like graphic design and Web software development answered the call. Lackluster sites remained, but most people chose to go to the pros.
The same can be said for voice user interface (VUI) design. While designed using different code than the Web, and harnessing the flow of dialogue rather than visual information, VUI design still works under the same mandates laid down by the Internet generation. Should a VUI project be left in the hands of novices, or should an interactive voice response (IVR) system be designed by the pros? That is left to a business to decide, but both sides of the argument refuse to go down without a fight. While some VUI consultants push for a stronger awareness of their field (primarily that there is much more to designing an IVR than meets the eye), some companies think the IVR could use some democratization. The argument for speech may seem nearly won, but subindustries within the area haven’t quite come to a conclusion.
VUI design, by which an organization creates the dialogue, flow, and responses used in an IVR powered by automatic speech recognition (ASR), is still a hotly contested area. And for good reason; both sides of the argument say VUI design can determine whether an IVR fails or succeeds. In the 2004 book Voice User Interface Design, authors Michael Cohen, James P. Giangola, and Jennifer Balogh state that "The VUI is perhaps the most critical factor in the success of any ASR system, determining whether the user experience will be satisfying or frustrating, or even whether the customer will remain one."
Statements like that are not rare within the industry, but what remains to be seen is whether members of a regular IT team can learn to design an IVR as successfully as a professional. Will they try feverishly to learn the skills needed and create something usable? Or will their IVR end up just like those early Web pages, full of bells and whistles, neither of which takes the user anywhere?
Susan Hura, founder and principal at SpeechUsability, says the chances of success in DIY design are less than average.
"People can try to do it themselves, but I think the chances of the average person, with no training in speech or human factors and no understanding of how people use conversation, are pretty small," Hura states. "There’s a whole technical side of things. I can’t imagine writing a grammar with no knowledge of speech acoustics. Many of these things require some background; if it works, it’s luck."
First Impressions Matter
Though other channels, such as the Internet, allow the end user to establish contact with a company, the phone remains the most popular point of contact for consumers looking to solve a problem. While they may have tapped a company’s Web site for background information, they come to the call center with unresolved questions or tricky situations. Therefore, the consumer’s first interaction with a company is typically its IVR. So when designing dialogue flows, Eduardo Olvera, senior user interface designer at Nuance Communications, thinks it’s always smart for a company to put its best foot forward. For him, that means bringing in the big guns to do some of the work.