Wednesday, October 17, 2007

User Fiendly

No, that title is not a typo. If you didn't think it was, look again. If you noticed, you may not be surprised that my topic is voice response systems.

I can always tell when my wife is negotiating a company's telephone system's speech recognition menus by the note of restrained frustration in her voice. I thought of this when I answered a call from Verizon Wireless wanting to survey me about their own voice response system for customer service. The first question was, "Did you use the voice response system, or did you choose to use the telephone keypad?" When I said, "Telephone keypad," that was all they wanted to know.

For at least several decades now, clueless executives have somehow been under the impression that speech recognition is the magic bullet that will make all technology approachable and user friendly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Remember when the same magical qualities were attributed to GUI's? A thousand graphical interfaces ensued that were just as hard to use as DOS or UNIX.

The key point that I think these people miss is that it's not the form of the interaction (text, graphical, key presses, voice), but rather what you do with it. The intuitive nature of the graphical interface derives from the use of appropriate metaphors; the graphics simply enable a broader range of possible metaphors than is allowed by a command line interface. Similarly, speech recognition does not itself make a system easier to use - it can actually make it much harder to use. What matters is what you do with it.

On this point, a fully functional and reliable natural language system would be ideal. Lacking that, a constrained, limited vocabulary is second best, but still probably slower and therefore less desirable than simple key presses. An open-ended, pseudo-natural language interface that sometimes works and sometimes fails in unpredictable ways, doesn't react appropriately to expressions of frustration, and gets in the way instead of greasing the skids is the worst possible solution. Yet that's the one we have now. So why, exactly, do companies think this is easier than pressing keys?