Improve Your Self-Service with a Great User Interface

If you read newspapers and magazines, browse the Web, or watch television, it should be obvious that the world has lost patience with self-service solutions with poorly designed voice user interfaces. No call center manager wants to be named the next poster child for the “worst self-service” ever. But you need automation to handle growing call volumes and to provide 24-hour access to information and services. The key to success is a great voice user interface. These best practices in voice user interface (VUI) design will eliminate much of what makes the VUI development process seem scary and difficult.

While organizations view the development of a VUI as a project fraught with hazards, they recognize the need for self-service solutions. Most contact centers simply couldn’t provide the basic services required by their customers without them. Examples of common self-service solutions include:

  • Automated ordering, electronic payment, and status reporting;
  • Catalog request and change of address;
  • Support and help desk services; password management;
  • Account information and bill pay; and,
  • Notifications for collections, scheduling, promotions etc.

Self-service solutions improve satisfaction ratings by providing customers with instant access to information and services. When self-service solutions are used in conjunction with live agents they reduce hold times, help balance call loads and reserve agents for callers that need extra attention. Adding speech is a proven method for improving self-service solutions by heightening caller satisfaction, increasing automation rates and lowering overall call time.

The first step in designing a great voice user interface is conducting a complete review of business processes and customer interactions. Be sure that you are addressing as many your specific customer requirements as possible. It is important to design the interface based on the activities of your customers; if you automate things that they don’t call about, it puts a delaying interface in front of them, which can be extremely frustrating.

Your analysis will also help to determine the type of speech technology that you need. Directed dialog solutions, which expect you to answer from a limited set of responses – “Would you like to be connected to sales or customer service?” – require less grammar development and yield higher recognition rates. But, the detailed prompting required for robust customer service solutions can feel confusing and unnatural. The alternative is a natural language “say anything” approach (“How can I help you today?”). These solutions provide callers with a more natural interface and streamline menus for faster navigation. The resources needed to build them, however, are significantly greater. They can be more expensive with longer development cycles because they require expert user interface design skills, significant upfront tuning, and more testing time. In addition, with a natural language interface, organizations must still be able to accurately predict what callers will say and also build in error handling scenarios that can refine an unknown response. If they don’t, these solutions can be ineffective and frustrating to callers.

For most organizations, speech solutions permitting natural language responses within a directed dialog framework yields optimal results. Here, developers can carefully define the context and purpose of the dialogue as precisely as possible so the number of possible matches is restricted and effective accuracy is maintained.

Once you have determined your overall speech strategy, consider the following tips for creating a VUI that will delight callers and maximize automation rates:

  • Speak in a common language – Your customers don’t always understand your jargon, including the names of products or services created by well-meaning marketing folks. Save the abbreviations, acronyms, and nicknames for company memos and speak plainly to your customers.
  • Make it fast and easy – Don’t bombard your novice customers with too many options – you’ll just confuse them. Also, consider both novice and experienced users. This means you should enable barge-in capabilities and give your “power users” options for bypassing directions and prompts they don’t need.
  • Treat callers with respect – You’ll be amazed by the difference that a pleasant, trained voice and the occasional “please” and “thank you” will make in the caller’s willingness to use an automated system.
  • Use silence – Well-timed pauses help novice and experienced users navigate your system more effectively.
  • Make sure grammars carefully match prompts – To generate higher recognition levels and create a better customer experience, for instance, you should:

    provide for all reasonable caller utterances, but the grammar should cover only the phrases you expect the caller to use. You should also avoid multiple parses – words or phrases that match more than one rule and don’t use large grammars that take too long for the speech engine to process. Extended pauses in the system’s operation will confuse callers.

  • Take errors seriously – Do not insult callers with “invalid input” responses. That might make sense to your IT department, but it won’t to your customers. Be positive and say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that…” Leverage confidence and n-best match data to offer possible responses to increase recognition such as “Did you mean size 7?”
  • Extend your branding when choosing your solution’s “persona” – A fabulous experience with your speech-enabled self-service solution will reinforce your brand and build customer loyalty. Select voice talent, or persona, that will project the image and style you want. Options to consider include male/female, old/young, and happy/serious. Also, do not mix voices, as callers move from one application to another; carry it through the entire self-service experience.
  • Consider offering multiple languages – This will allow your system to serve your entire customer base

In addition to these design tips, robust testing is critical to getting the exact voice user interface your customers will love. If you are designing a complex solution that requires many customer interactions, you may want to test nuances in your design prior to investing in development work.

Be prepared to continually tune your solution – over time and to seasonal variations – to ensure the best results. Make sure you have a flexible solution – and relationship with your vendor – that will enable your solution to adapt to market and business changes.

Christoph Mosing is Vice President of Professional Services for Westborough, MA-based Envox Worldwide.