• May 3, 2010
  • By Leonard Klie Editor, Speech Technology and CRM magazines
  • FYI

Are Consumers More Responsive to Male or Female Voices?

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In crafting a TV, radio, or Web advertising campaign, probably the most important decision every marketing executive must make is whether to use a male or female voice. 

It’s not a decision that’s answered easily. Almost half of Americans (48 percent) believe a male voice is more forceful, while 46 percent believe a female voice is more soothing, according to a recent poll of nearly 2,200 U.S. adults by Adweek and Harris Interactive. However, almost half of U.S. adults also say it makes no difference to them—that neither voice is more forceful (49 percent) or more soothing (46 percent).

The answer is just as nebulous when it comes to speech application design. “It’s one of the persistent problems. It’s a question that [voice user interface] designers get a lot,” says Susan Hura, a VUI designer and president of SpeechUsability.

Common practice has been to use a female voice, though that might not always be the best choice, according to Phil Shinn, a speech application developer and voice user interface designer at the IVR Design Group, a professional services company that does interactive voice response (IVR) design and development, project management, and human factors assessment. Shinn notes that more than 75 percent of the nearly 700 IVR systems in the GetHuman customer service database use a female voice, though research has been inconclusive.

When it comes to persuasion, one in five Americans (19 percent) responding to the Adweek/Harris poll identified a female voice as more persuasive, while 18 percent believe a male voice is more persuasive. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) said the voice’s gender makes no difference.

As for actually selling a specific product, two-thirds of Americans say the type of voice doesn’t make a difference; neither makes them more likely to buy a car (66 percent) or a computer (69 percent). Among those who believe it does make a difference, more than one-quarter (28 percent) believe a male voice is more likely to sell them a car, while 23 percent say a male voice is more likely to sell them a computer. Only 7 percent say a female voice is more likely to sell them either.

The conclusion that can be drawn from the Adweek/Harris poll is, overall, the American consumer does not believe one type of voice is more or less likely to sell a certain product or service.

Shinn disagrees. “Tons of experiments have been done over the years, and the end result is we did find gender differences. People buy more when the pitch is done by a male voice,” he states.

Not only is the bias toward males, but toward males with lower voices, he adds, noting a very common condition called presbycusis in which older people have a harder time hearing higher-pitched voices. Therefore, “it should be a male voice when dealing with older people,” according to Shinn.

Hura agrees. “Most of the research I’ve seen has more to do with how easy the voice is to understand,” she says. “Females have a higher voice, and so it can be more difficult to comprehend a female voice.”

Still, Shinn argues that IVR voices are largely female because the design community wants to make it sound like the caller is dealing with a live person, and most customer service representatives are female. Also, “there’s the gender role of a female secretary answering the phone,” he says.

Another common sentiment is that women are more caring and nurturing, according to Shinn.

But the type of voice should have more to do with the type of application, he says, citing a study by German automaker BMW that revealed drivers do not want to hear driving directions from a navigation device delivered by a female voice.

“Looking at the impact of gender, it’s about how people perceive automated systems,” Shinn states. “Basically, we treat them like real people; we personify them.”

In his opinion, other factors beyond just the gender need to be considered. “People want to identify with the voice,” he says, “so you may want to use a female voice if your callers are mostly female.” 

People are more likely to respond to a voice that closely matches their own personality, meaning they would sooner interact with an automated system that sounds similar to themselves in terms of gender, age, accent, level of education, income, and other factors, according to Shinn.

He also suggests designers consider the role of the system and its relationship to the caller. When the application calls for a caring, nurturing role, that is best left to a female voice, while technical issues are often better suited to a male voice, he says.

But in the end, IVR design still comes down to one fact: “People will be more persuaded by a dominant personality, and that typically is a lower-pitched male voice,” Shinn says without hesitation.

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