Offer a Spanish Option, But Not Too Soon

NEW YORK (SpeechTEK 2008) -- Issues with the way language preferences are offered to callers in telephone systems in the United States are often so prevalent that they’ve become part of pop culture in Saturday Night Live skits, comic strips, and songs.

Sondra Ahlen, the principal consultant and owner of SAVIC, spoke about the best practices for offering Spanish in U.S. telephony applications at the SpeechTEK conference today in New York’s Marriott Marquis.

As the Hispanic population in the U.S. continues to rise at higher than predicted rates, Ahlen emphasized the need to provide the best customer service possible to this demographic. However, many factors affect language choice in voice user interfaces, one of them being a person's primary or preferred language.

"This can depend on what their primary language is, if it's the only language they speak," Ahlen said. Some people may speak Spanish, for instance, at home and with friends, but prefer to use English at work, when filling out surveys, or when watching TV. Another factor is why the person chooses to use one language over another. "Sometimes people ask specifically for Spanish-speaking agents because the hold times are shorter," Ahlen said. 

Ahlen went on to address the top issues in how Spanish is offered in VUI systems. The first is when a caller is forced to choose English. She said that many Americans don't understand why they have to choose English as an option—some may think that, since we're in the U.S., shouldn't it be obvious that this is the preferred language?

"Lots of people are up in arms because they don't understand why they have to choose English when they are using VUI systems," Ahlen said. "It does make sense, given that the majority of callers are speaking English, to still make English the default, but [you should be] providing Spanish speakers an easy way to use Spanish."

Another issue, she said, is that many VUI systems offer Spanish either too late or too early. Often, a lengthy introduction is followed by the option to hear it in Spanish, but a Spanish speaker might think that there is not a Spanish option if it takes too long. However, if there isn't any messaging first in English, the English speaker might think that English is not offered.

Ahlen said that non-Spanish accents pose another issue to VUI systems. English voice talent for Spanish language prompts can be jarring, and a heavy English accent can sound awkward to Spanish callers. It can also lead to distrust. "Spanish callers get very frustrated because it sounds like the company doesn't care about its Spanish audience," she said.

To solve some of these problems, Ahlen spoke about best practices in designing Spanish opt-ins.

"Let callers know they can use English by saying something in English first," she said. "Then let callers know how to choose Spanish."

Spanish should be offered early using Spanish language with native pronunciation. And, "whenever possible, just use a different phone number and market that number to people [who want to speak Spanish]," she said.

Ahlen also recommended that companies avoid telling Spanish-speaking callers to push a button rather than speak to select something. Maintaining language consistency across different applications is important, as well as tuning the application to get the caller to the right language.

Next, Ahlen said, research into demographics, culture, and language preference should be done. She also emphasized the need for usability studies and cross-application performance analysis.

In the end, the important thing when considering how to use Spanish in speech applications, she said, is to remember that Spanish speakers need to feel like you care about them and are serving them as well as English speakers.

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