A Gray Area

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When it comes to interactive voice response (IVR) systems, 73-year-old Alvin Shatkin doesn’t mince words.

“I hate them,” the New York City senior says. “We seniors have enough difficulty hearing when we’re talking to a live person, and these synthesized voices are even more difficult to understand.”

Shatkin’s litany of complaints with current IVR technology is considerable: Volume, pitch, tone, and speed are not exactly senior-friendly. Good, clear diction is often lacking. Systems don’t give him enough time to respond to prompts. When he does enter a response—either by voice or touch-tone input—the systems often fail to recognize what he entered. “And then, when I need or want to speak to a human, they don’t make it possible,” he says.

So what’s a guy like Shatkin to do? His answer is simple, and one no company wants to hear (though they must know): “It depends on how badly I need a company. If there’s a competitor whose system is more to my liking, I wouldn’t hesitate to go to that company instead,” says Shatkin, a retired IT professional whose level of technological know-how is far more advanced than most of his peers. “In most cases, I would make my displeasure heard by going to someone else.”

And while Shatkin is just one person, he represents a growing population segment with a lot of clout and buying power. In fact, last year, the 40.3 million Americans 65 and older made up 13 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging. This demographic is expected to number 54.8 million, representing 16.1 percent of the population, by 2020, and 72.1 million, or 19 percent of the population, by 2030.

Despite this trend, IVR systems in general are developed for younger consumers with an appetite for shiny, fast, new, sleek, and sexy. They tend to be one-size-fits-all, designed to serve the largest number of customers. Seniors are typically overlooked in traditional design work or are considered only as an afterthought, much to the detriment of the companies that would like to keep them as customers.

“Seniors are obviously the largest-growing consumer group with the most money to spend,” says senior advocate Abby Stokes, author of the books Is This Thing On? A Computer Handbook for Late Bloomers, Technophobes, and the Kicking and Screaming and It's Never Too Late to Love a Computer. Stokes has also  taught courses in basic computing at both Cooper Union and New York University’s School of Lifelong Learning, and frequently offers computer training to private and corporate clients, among them a number of seniors and senior centers. “If you can get [seniors] to say that your company is good, their loyalty level is so much higher than younger people’s. If you make things easy for them, they’ll keep coming back to you again and again.”

But that’s not to say companies can take their senior customers for granted once they’ve lured them in. Like Shatkin, confronted with any hurdle seniors are willing to jump ship to a competitor that better addresses their needs. And in most cases, seniors have more time on their hands to research companies and shop around.

Keep It Engaging

One way to hold onto elderly customers is to keep them engaged throughout the IVR. Many seniors, for example, have difficulties hearing, so why not allow them to control the IVR volume, pitch, and speaking rate themselves? This can be done with a simple bit of coding  and a prompt in the IVR dialogue: To raise the volume, press 3; to adjust the number of words spoken per minute, press 4.

However, such functionality does add another layer to the IVR and more steps in the dialogue. A better solution, according to Daniel O’Sullivan, president and CEO of IVR software and design firm Interactive Digital, is a system that automatically adjusts volume, speaking rate, pitch, and the length of time available to enter a response. His company’s patented Adaptive Audio process automatically does that, and can even tailor content, based on the user’s exhibited skills during the interaction. It also can insert instructions into the dialogue to help seniors get through the menus and create longer pauses before an application times out. This software-only process has proved effective in shortening calls and improving containment rates in the IVR, O’Sullivan says.

“We monitor their behavior at every step in the call to see how well they are doing, and can adjust things accordingly without them having to request it. It’s done automatically throughout the call,” O’Sullivan explains. “When added to a voice application, [Adaptive Audio] makes that application adaptive in real time. It analyzes and learns how each caller is using the application and adjusts accordingly. The idea is to personalize the application in real time without affecting the caller.”

And this technology is good not only for seniors. For more proficient IVR users, the application can also speed the prompts and cut the time needed to enter information. “You can alienate folks who want to move along much faster,” O’Sullivan says. “That’s the benefit of Adaptive Audio: You do not have to alienate one group of users to compensate for another.”

Michael Greene, a New York social worker who has dealt extensively with seniors and senior centers, suggests companies integrate customer relationship management tools into their telephony applications to identify senior callers at the outset. If the company knows the person calling in is a senior—identified by a caller ID attached to customer records and previous dealings with the company—it can automatically adjust the volume and speaking rate ahead of time.

But at the same time, the company should avoid making it painfully obvious it’s tailoring an application solely for seniors. “Seniors want to be treated with dignity and respect, so applications should not patronize or talk down to them,” says Deborah Dahl, principal at speech and language consulting firm Conversational Technologies. “Some seniors are sensitive to any implication that they might not be able to hear or understand prompts, so applications should avoid giving an impression that the users have problems in those areas.”

Dahl also warns against what she calls “elderspeak,” a condescending style of speech characterized by a slow speech rate and exaggerated prosody.

The Voice of Choice

As for the voice itself, application designers, senior advocates, and even the elderly themselves are divided as to whether to use a male or female voice. O’Sullivan thinks a female voice that comes across as reassuring, understanding, and compassionate while still sounding knowledgeable is the way to go.

Greene thinks a more mature male voice works best. “There is some hearing loss at the higher pitches, which could make it difficult for seniors to hear some female voices,” he says.

Art Rosenberg, who at 82 serves as the principal analyst for The Unified View, a unified communications industry blog, says the voice’s gender is not as important as the tone. For him, any voice will do as long as it’s friendly, articulate, and doesn’t speak too fast. It also helps if the dialogue is written with a more formal style of interaction. Young, overly friendly, peppy, and high energy doesn’t work for the senior population.

Stokes agrees. “Being helpful and polite in the recording is important. It shouldn’t be apologetic, but calm and reassuring. Try to inject a little humanity into it. And speak in full sentences,” says Stokes, who has demystified computers for more than 125,000 people, mostly seniors, in the past 17 years.

The tone of the IVR can also go a long way in helping seniors overcome their initial fears about interacting with a computer.
“It’s a bugaboo for this generation when they can’t get a human. There’s an immediate emotional response to a computer,” Stokes says. “When they grew up, people answered the phone, and even if they can navigate the menus, there is an initial disappointment that there’s not a person on the other end.”

If it is possible for callers to speak to a live operator, that option should be presented early on in the dialogue. For seniors to have to go through so many cycles and steps before being able to reach a human being is extremely frustrating, according to Stokes. “I would guess that a lot of seniors hang up on these calls because they can’t handle it or they’re afraid that they might do something wrong,” she adds.
That’s because, unfortunately, many seniors are far behind the times when it comes to technology. According to Stokes, less than 50 percent of this age group has ever seen a Web page. Of those who have used computers, most are only using them to send and receive email from friends and family or to perform very basic tasks, she says.

To further prove her point, she says many of the seniors she has worked with  don’t have answering machines or voicemail. Some still have rotary phones in their homes, and without touch-tone it’s impossible for them to interact with most automated phone systems.
Still others might have difficulty with touch-tone inputs because of arthritis or problems with manual dexterity. In those cases, programming the IVR to transfer to a human right away if the caller doesn’t push any buttons within a certain amount of time might help. Most systems just time out and ask the caller to re-enter the information.

Timing Is Everything

Application time-outs are probably one of the biggest sore spots for seniors. “Everything is going way too fast for them. Their minds work slower, so the words need to be slower and the time to do something needs to be longer,” Stokes says.

To help in this regard, Dahl recommends keeping menus short, using consistent vocabulary, and avoiding company- or industry-specific jargon. She also suggests using natural language inputs to cut down on the need for seniors to remember menu choices. Seniors might need a little guidance about what to say when faced with a natural language interface, she advises. For example, a dialogue that begins Please briefly describe your problem rather than an open-ended prompt like How can I help you? is preferred.

When offering a natural language option, Dahl suggests making sure the grammar recognizes plenty of ways for the user to ask for something. As a backup, she also suggests companies plan to send the person to an agent after a couple of tries where no input is given.
Most applications today include an option to have menu choices repeated—a big help for seniors as well. Adding just a second or two at the end of a prompt to allow more time for a senior to enter the requested information is also a good idea. Granted, these options might add a few seconds to the total call duration, but a business needs to weigh those few extra pennies per call with the cost of potentially losing a customer or the costs associated with having seniors repeat prompts or start over.

And among seniors, that potential is great. Whereas younger and more experienced IVR users might not necessarily mind a few extra seconds or the slower speed, and are unlikely to hang up on an application as a result, seniors will hang up and not call back again without those accommodations, Stokes maintains.

Common Concerns

One way the two age groups are alike, however: Despite the common perception that seniors have all the time in the world, they are just as bothered as younger consumers by long, drawn-out dialogues that take forever to navigate. They can be a little more patient, but even their patience has a limit, and they want to do things with minimal effort.

“I would suggest that companies concentrate on placing their choices more up front so I don’t have to go through this long song and dance,” Shatkin says.

It’s a common problem that Stokes hears repeatedly as well. “Once I get somebody over the fact that they’re not going to get to a live person, it’s a matter of how many steps they’ll have to go through to get to what they want,” she says.

Also to be avoided are long silences  and dead air between transfers. “During the dead-air time, put in some sort of audible notification that lets [the seniors] know they haven’t been hung up on,” Stokes suggests. Even more helpful would be a line that lets them know how long they’ll have to wait. In fact, that makes good business sense for all callers, not just the elderly.

Another way companies can help their senior customers with menu choices is by making their applications multimodal. Whether seniors like it or not, even they will eventually be using smartphones with multiple modes of input and output. And when that happens, whole new worlds will open for them as they interact with companies.

“Voice menus stink. Give me a visual menu so I can see all my choices and choose the one I want,” Unified View’s Rosenberg says. “Instead of talking to me, show it to me. Instead of having to repeat it over and over again, let me see it once.”

Presenting information visually also allows companies to address the needs of other customers with special needs. For example, people who have difficulties seeing or hearing can certainly benefit from having information presented both visually and audibly.

Mobile and multimodal technologies also allow companies to be more proactive with their senior customers. This is especially true in markets like healthcare, insurance, and financial services that deal with retirement benefits—where seniors make up most of the callers.
“Seniors need to be reminded of things, so it’s outbound [technologies] that they are starting to become dependent upon,” Rosenberg says.

For the elderly, this could mean a phone call to remind them of a doctor’s appointment, to refill a prescription, or to take a medication. And because some of these reminders can be vital and time-sensitive, it would help if the outbound system could also be multimodal—capable of reaching the targeted seniors through multiple means, including landline and wireless phones, email, and text messages.
Outbound notifications also serve another purpose when dealing with the elderly. “Don’t wait for them to call and tell you they have a problem. If you can reach out to them beforehand, it’s just good customer service,” Rosenberg says.

Designing for seniors has much larger societal implications. As the Baby Boomers age and continue to live in their own homes, companies can increase their self-reliance and reduce their social isolation by designing applications with them in mind. And, though seniors might have decreased vision, hearing, and physical dexterity that can benefit from speech and multimodal technologies, these problems can also affect any number of other users, most notably the disabled.

Good Designs for All

For Dahl, designing with these users in mind shouldn’t be that difficult. “Many good design techniques are consistent with good user experiences for users of all ages. Short menus, clear vocabulary, a logical menu structure, and use of natural language when appropriate benefit all users,” she says.

“A good technique for reducing the complexity of an application for older users without making the application overly simplistic for younger users is a technique that’s often used for long menus: The IVR first offers a few of the most common menu selections followed by an ‘other’ choice. This means no one menu is ever too long, and younger users appreciate short menus, too,” Dahl adds.

As for Shatkin, he would like to see companies take one simple step that will make their applications more senior-friendly: “I would suggest that they include senior citizens in their focus groups to make systems that are better for seniors before deploying them.” 

For anyone who wants to call on him for usability testing, he’s standing by.

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