Visual IVR: when voice is complemented by digital

I’ve seen many discussions on forums and groups, all around the concept of visual IVR, that “thing” that will enhance your unfortunate experience with an automated voice script, by adding some visual media to convey more complex messages and data, helping you out of the maze, sometimes even directly into the hands of a journey- savvy live operator on the phone.

visualIVR

Self-service ivr has been around for a while and will not die soon, for the following reasons:

– it’s relatively cheap

– it’s real-time communication

– its interface is one that everyone is able to use: the telephone or the voice.

On the other hand, a visual IVR will fix some of the issues that the old ivr inherently attached to the interaction: what if the information I am receiving is too long or too complex to be listed on the phone? What if the information I need to provide is also impossible to convey over the phone to an automated attendant?

I was recently involved in a project that aims replacing data-entry by giving users the ability to fill their application forms on-line, directly through a link to a mobile web page sent via text SMS.

How convenient that I can have my form immediately displayed on my smartphone! And change the information in the form without having to listen to endless choices or screaming into a recognition system with the wrong vocabulary or too much background noise to understand what I say!

With time, we already know the voice behind the visual will become redundant; but it helped train a demographic that was resistant to web or mobile web in the beginning. So if anything can help me do all of that, be welcome whatever the naming convention used!

Sometimes we need to plan for the early obsolescence of an emerging technology just because the process itself will bring value and experience to the customers and its real meaning is not in using it but rather in unlearning it.

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Diaries of the voice portal (part 2)

Few weeks ago I wrote about the first voice portals, back in ’97.

Fast forward 5 years. VoIP communication is all the rage and we all merrily jump in the wagon (we do love us a new technology, don’t we) and start working on the network. All without knowing a thing about IP stuff, hoping that the behavior of our nice little voice toys, on IP transport, would be the same. And obviously it is not. images (1) I remember getting a call from a customer one afternoon timidly complaining that their voice responses (and in fact the whole contact center) was not answering calls: it was, in fact,  dropping calls. Now, dropping calls in a telephony environment is like the worst thing that could happen, only second to a complete major outage of the platform (or death in the family), so I righteously panicked and called the network guy that was in charge of the VoIP configuration. He answered calmly that he got the customer call as well and that he did get immediately into the system, checked his beloved router and saw that all was fine, so he scheduled the support for a more convenient day. He would look at the issue the next day as soon as he was in the office.

WTF?!?

Well, that was my first encounter with the “network guys”, where a bit of network outage did not mean _panic and destruction_ but only a few packets lost here and there, no fuss, no big deal. Hence the first lesson learned with VoIP: synchronous communication does mind if packets are lost, and even a few seconds outage IS a big deal and will probably at best miss portions of the interaction, at worst drop the whole connection. In the end it was the carrier’s fault and the connection with the voice gateway took all the blame, but after this occurrence the network guy never missed a “dropped calls” alert again. 🙂

If I were a user (#1)

…I’d refuse to repeat myself across different channels!!!

repeating_info

This is by far one of the most annoying things about any service: you struggle with an ivr, or browse through an authenticated portal, only to find out that the information were inconsistent and wrong and when you finally, angry and frustrated after hours of bad self-service experience, reach a live agent you get the much dreaded question “Can you please tell me your name and address?”.

This sucks!

Diaries of the voice portal

I have been working on one of the first “I.V.R.” (Interactive voice response, for those not familiar with the acronyms) back in 1997. It was a huge thing back then, especially as ASR and TTS (the natural language way of speaking with a machine) were really early technology and to say the least, a bit immature. I remember that we randomly called people from all over the country and recorded the calls for the ASR engine to get all the slang and accents.The embryo of today’s voice portal was in my hands and it looked awesome and cool and as an engineer, the potential seemed so high that we imagined these things would replace humans in just a few months!

So after a while we enthusiastically rolled out our first scripts: developed, tested, re-tested, documented and highly appreciated by the techies, only to find out that

…they were a complete disaster once in the hands of the end users.

They lacked some instructions, albeit the intuitive menus, some quick fallback to a nice sweet helping voice, the speech recognition was funny and bizarre and text to speech failed to be comprehensive, but most of all, we assumed that common users did prefer a machine to a human. I am still convinced that some of the errors we made back in the old days are still haunting us because guess what? People remember.

Now things have changed a lot, but again not so much from those years:

  • We still develop scripts for the user to play with – sometimes we also provide some sort of independence for the users to develop their own dynamic script during the interaction. This still has lots of potential but is inexorably linked to the target users.
  • Adoption rates largely vary according to the service, the target demographic and the goodness of the script. And I am not mentioning here those ivr trees that are specifically developed to confuse and deflect people from calling.
  • ASR and TTS are still not widely accepted for many reasons that have nothing to do with the technology, which is even more awesome and amazing than ever (have you tried it?) : namely the end user willingness to accept the use of natural language in their game with an automated response thingy.
  • Self-service is still somehow big: people love to find their own answers and browse safely on the web or on any other device that will guarantee some degree of anonymity: similar to the unparalleled satisfaction of mounting our own Ikea piece of furniture (for those of us who don’t end up with a weird library and a bunch of unused screws), we love proving to our self that we can be self-sufficient across different channels and fix our own problemsMounting Ikea furniture
  • A human representative is still the choice of election for those problems that are not in the Q&A, not in the FAQ, not in the knowledge base and not in any automated script and therefore require the human brain to solve it.

How are we doing with this? 18 years and still dealing with ivr scripts? There must be something new in our technological horizon, something that will lift us to the point where users will find 99% of their answers and the 1% will be answered by a super-human agent who is someone like Mr Wolf, only “solves problems”.

The Wolf

For now, I guess we’re far from that target and I really need to call my isp support to fix this upload issue… 😦