VUI Designers Know Cross-Channel Design

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I write this column on the heels of SpeechTEK 2012, where the buzzwords were multi- and cross-channel experience. Many presentations reminded us that IVRs and Web sites can't live in their own little worlds anymore, that we all have to play nice in order to provide the best experience to customers.

This isn't new—the game changer is mobile applications. It seems like every organization has a mobile application or is considering one, and these apps have changed the rules of engagement with customers.

Mobile apps tend to be smarter and more efficient than the average IVR, and have significantly raised customer expectations of self-service across all channels. For those of us in IVR-land, this means figuring out a way to meet new expectations or risk obsolescence.

The solution is good cross-channel design, which raises the question of who is best suited to do it. Various theories were put forth at SpeechTEK about developing this new and previously unconceived-of skill set, but one brave designer asserted otherwise. My longtime friend and colleague, Lizanne Kaiser, Ph.D., business consultant extraordinaire at Genesys, suggested that VUI designers are the original cross-channel designers.

When designing the user experience for IVRs, VUI designers have always had to account for and accommodate multiple channels. A call that begins in an IVR does not necessarily conclude there. Calls are regularly transferred to call center representatives, then sometimes back into the IVR. VUI designers have a deep understanding of how to ease the transition from automated self-service to a human representative without losing the context of the conversation or introducing inefficiencies. Interacting with an IVR and speaking to a representative both arguably take place via the telephony channel, but the interaction models are vastly different, which supports the idea of VUI designers as cross-channel experts. Typical GUI or Web designers are not regularly tasked with designing across multiple channels within a single interaction. A customer may open a chat window on a Web site, but this remains a purely graphical, keyboard and mouse, interaction.

Another factor favoring VUI designers for cross-channel experience design is the different input modalities used in IVR interactions. Most IVRs are designed to allow the caller to seamlessly switch between speech and DTMF input, so VUI designers must write prompts that enable this. Prompts designed to elicit speech responses must concisely and clearly present the situation to work within the limits of auditory short-term memory, and guide the user toward predictable spoken responses that have the best chance of being correctly recognized. Prompts for touchtone must be refocused in light of users' dual tasks of selecting among a set of options and remembering what to do to select the desired option. VUI designers are accustomed to considering interactions in different modalities and making modifications to the user interface based on the parameters of each.

Such modifications are an inherent part of cross-channel experience design. The same transaction may need to be presented differently depending on whether users are interacting over the phone, on the Web, or on their mobile device. The instructions and other details that can be included on the Web may overwhelm a user when presented auditorily or be too long to display effectively on a tiny mobile phone screen. The need for concise yet unambiguous design is a need shared by auditory interfaces that are limited by the amount of audio users can effectively process and by mobile, multimodal interfaces that are limited by small screen real estate and challenging contexts of use. These contexts of use are familiar to VUI designers as well—mobile applications run on telephones, the same technology that enables IVR interactions.

Graphic design obviously plays a vital role in the creation of the look and feel of mobile applications, but in terms of the presentation of information and collection of user responses, VUI designers have the advantage of being aware that changes are often needed for the same transaction across different channels, and have years of experience designing for the same context in which mobile apps are used.

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is a principal and founder of SpeechUsability, a VUI design consulting firm. She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

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