Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Drop the "Welcome to..." and "Thank you for calling…"

Instead, why not simply have your application announce your company’s name, preceded or followed by an audio icon, and then followed by the company’s tag line, if the company has one.? Such an opening will not only set your IVR apart from the garden variety ones but will have shortened the length of your opening prompt.

System: Widget Solutions. [Audio Icon]. Intelligence at your service.

Friday, July 20, 2007

My Beef with Paul English: Part II

What did I mean by "the propagation of the very ad-hoc, amateurish IVR deployments that Paul English is complaining about"?

The problem with the voice automation field is not a lack of knowledge, it is a lack of practice. We know and have known for many years what a good VUI sounds like. And we continue to learn and refine our knowledge. What is at the heart of what ails IVR deployments is the disconnect between what we know and what we encounter in the deployed IVR wilderness.

I am not going to theorize here about the root causes of such a disconnect. That would make for a fine research topic for a Technology Studies graduate student. I might venture to guess that it has something to do with the fact that telephony deployments have for long been technically complex projects with the bulk of the challenge and expense being in just getting a system to work and to keep it running. So, your ops people, the smartest and most technically savvy members of your staff, end up slapping together the IVR system for you, thus rendering usability to an afterthought at best.

Another possibility may be that only very recently have we seen universities seriously taking up VUI design as a legitimate line of training. I can tell you from experience that there is no plethora of professionally trained VUI designers out there. The good people at EIG are fulfilling a great need, but by themselves they cannot make the impact that dozens of universities minting out thousands of Bachelor or Masters degrees in VUI design can.

So, when Paul English comes along and begins to conduct methodologically unsound surveys of his website visitors (see http://www.gethuman.com/standard/
for a blurb on his “methodology”), pretending that he is seriously building a useful corpus of knowledge that will guide the industry into better deployments, one wonders if the man is serious, and if he is, why won't the industry veterans who have decided to "support" him not point out to him that the wheel he is supposedly building has already been invented?

Paul English can still be very useful to our industry and to the consumer rights movement in general. Instead of framing the struggle against bad automation in epistemological terms -- i.e., we don't have enough knowledge so let us start learning -- he could for instance engage his energies in propagating the good word about the large body of work and thinking that has already been done, or the many outfits that can help companies deploy sound interfaces. Or even more significantly, he could agitate for universities to train a solid generation of professional-grade VUI designers and developers.

Now, should we expect someone who runs a web site called gethuman.com and who has gained notoriety from publishing a cheat sheet that helps callers completely avoid automation seriously undertake such a mission? I don’t think we should. I think it is up to us to get beyond Paul English and to start tackling the true causes of what ails voice automation as it is deployed today.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

My Beef with Paul English: Part I

Nowadays, when I open my newly arrived "Speech Technology Magazine" (and I do like the new format), I brace myself. I brace myself for yet another article announcing that Paul English "is right" and that he is "good for the industry". As I read, I literally cringe at the fawning for a man who has only contempt for what we do. And palpable fear and a hint of panic is what I read between the lines. Otherwise, how can one explain the flight from rational thought that has led many industry experts and veterans to settle that the best way to deal with someone who heaps loathing upon you is to adopt him as a latter day saint and a savior?

Here is the extent to which Paul English is right. He is right that people do not like IVR very much, or at all, and he is right that a good number of deployed IVR systems are not well designed. And that’s about it.

Now, my beef with Paul English is not that he is going about announcing the obvious. The best teachers start from the basic elements of truth, and those two observations are indeed good starting points.

My beef with Paul English is his second act: the project that he has launched to begin "reforming the industry".

Let's take a look at his gethuman.com web site. If you browse through his "gethuman standard" pages, the one thing that will strike you if you have been in the Voice User Interface (VUI) design field for any period of time is his "tabula-rasa"[0] approach to his reformation "movement". It is as if there has been NOTHING done in the VUI design field before Paul English decided to take up the reform mantle. No mention of books written in VUI design, no mention of articles, forums and other resources. To someone who is not familiar with the industry, it will surely appear as if no one before Paul English had ever bothered to care about caller experience, no one had ever thought of writing down VUI best practices or tending to voice interface usability.

What does that tell us? Well, first and foremost, that the man is not serious about reforming automation. Read his "core principles" page, for example. It smacks of hurried, half-hearted amateurism. So we end up with inanities such as, "The system should be so easy, convenient and efficient to use that people will willingly choose to use it," or "Self-service applications should have logical flow," or "No prompt content should be included unless it improves efficiency of task completion for the user." And that's about the level of sophistication that one will get.

Now, as I said, stating the obvious is no sin in and of itself. But it is a sin if the obvious is misleadingly presented as the cutting-edge final word and not as a stimulus for more serious learning and investigation. The only references that I could find on Paul English’s gethuman web site to resources for those interested in better VUI were to Walt Tetschner's ASRNews and Walter Rolandi’s VUI consulting practice. (Both Tetschner and Rolandi are members of the gethuman team.[Y]) No mention of The Enterprise Integration Group, for instance, a very well known and respected consulting firm that offers top-quality training in VUI design. No mention of Vocalabs, a highly competent agency in IVR usability. No mention even of Nuance’s Speech University. One would have expected at least a mention of Nuance, given that Peter Mahoney, according to a speech he gave in Speechtek West in 2006, went to high school with Paul English and had at the time English was about to launch gethuman.com been chatting with him for hours at a time about his Cheat Sheet. Of course, mentioning Angel.com’s IVR university would be out of the question: Paul English considers Angel.com an arch-enemy, period. Why? Because we dared respond to his Cheat Sheet with out own IVR Cheat Sheet.

The consequence is the propagation of the very ad-hoc, amateurish IVR deployments that Paul English is complaining about.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Having it out with Walt Tetschner

My response to Walt Tetschner's sarcastic response to one of my posts on the VUIDs yahoogroups:

And thank you for making it hard for me to be sarcastic!

I only wish you would apply your severe standards of evidence to the methodology applied by the gethuman project to reach its conclusions.... There, self-selection and loaded questions, among other basic infractions of sound statistical practice, are tolerated as unremarkable..... See:

Anyway, your posts remind me of that famous saying that goes something like: "The beatings shall continue until morale improves!" ;-)
This was Walt's post:

Thanks for your input to my survey. The denial scores continue to dominate. Have you attempted to contact Vodafone or the SpeechTech magazine author about the survey that substantiated that their customers are so satisfied? They don’t mention any details of the survey at all which makes it a bit difficult to blindly accept the results of the sutvey. If they truly are obtaining results that are as good as are being reported, then we should really find out what they are doing so well. I noticed that they have also found that long menus are good for improving customer satisfaction.


Monday, July 16, 2007

When users prefer IVR

A couple of interesting articles from Speech Technology Magazine. The first will probably send Walt&Walt into shock. It makes the brazen claim that users of a Vodafone Spain speech solution were happy with the speech deployment they called into. Of course, the numbers they cite -- 95
percent of its customers surveyed about their experience with the speech-enabled call center find the system easy to use, 89 percent think using the system is quick, and 96 percent are not bothered by the system at all -- may be complete lies and outright fabrications, but here is the article, for what it's worth, and for the record:

A second, less shocking article, mentions a 2006 Gartner study that also gives some interesting numbers. Again, the numbers should be taken with a dry grain of salt as they may also be shameless fabrications that may very well not withstand the crushing weight of anecdotal evidence and irrefutable general (but sanguine) cultural sentiments:

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Opening the Call

You get only one shot at making a good first impression. In an IVR system, such an impression is formed by users and conveyed by VUI designers with the application’s opening prompt.

When writing your application’s opening prompt, keep the following three basic VUI guidelines in mind:

Be brief: Belabored, verbose opening prompts confirm the worst stereotype of the dumb, overbearing IVR system. If you force users to listen to 30 seconds of instructions, information, and disclaimers before they can take the first step towards solving their problem, you will not only have started your user on the wrong note, but would have given users a whole 30 seconds to push the zero-out button.

Be concise: Each and every single word in your opening prompt needs to be absolutely indispensable. If you can get rid of a word without losing meaning or effectiveness, do it.

Be polite: Politeness is not simply an icing on the cake of a good VUI design. A system that is respectful of users is a system that is attentive to user needs, and therefore a system that will help users successfully accomplish the task they called about.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Invisibility of VUI

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about using a voice interface is the feeling of not knowing where precisely you are in the interaction and what exactly the system expects you to do next. A well-designed web site will show navigators where in the menu tree they are, but even without a menu path indicator, a web page usually has enough visual clues to tip the user on where they are in the site (a url being one simple indicator). Not so with a voice interface, where the user can quickly feel lost for a lack of mental markers positioning them where they precisely are in the exchange with the system.

Mark the exchange: just like a well-designed web page will indicate where in the web site a user is, a good voice interface will tell the user where in the menu tree they are positioned. Usually, a word or two will suffice: “main menu” for the highest level menu, “here are your flights” before announcing a list of flight numbers, etc.

Trace the path: in applications where the menu structure is deep and wide, users can very easily become confused about where they are in the interaction, even when you mark the individual menu levels. In such situations, you can associate with each voice page that handles an interaction with users a “position page” that traces, starting from the main menu, the position of the user within the menu tree. “Restaurants, Chinese, Zip code”, for instance, would succinctly help the user understand that they chose “Restaurants”, then “Chinese”, and are now giving out a zip code to locate Chinese restaurants within that zip code. You can achieve path tracing by using a message page with a prompt describing the path and the “Go back” option for “Actions”.

Use earcons: an “earcon”, or “auditory icon”, is the voice-equivalent of a graphical interface’s icon. An icon is small graphic that means something specific in the context of the interaction: for instance, an “arrow” pointing to the right may mean go to the next page, and one to the left may mean go back to the previous page. Earcons can be very useful in positioning the user within a menu structure or in announcing the type of action that is about to be undertaken. The sound of a keyboard clicking could be used to indicate to the user that the system is busy doing something (while dead silence may be taken by the user that the system crashed or the call had ended).

Perhaps the one fundamental advantage that GUIs have over VUIs is the feeling that a graphical user has of control over both the medium and the interaction. A very bad GUI can certainly make one feel helpless and at the mercy of irrational forces, but it does take a very bad GUI to throw the user into a state of confusion. A VUI, on the other hand, because it is time time-linear, uni-directional, and invisible, has to stumble only once in the interaction for the user to be thrown in a state of hopeless perplexity. Keeping in mind that there are key differences between designing a GUI and a VUI should help the alert VUI designer avoid making the costly mistake of smuggling GUI assumptions when engaged in VUI design.