Customers are less forgiving with phone systems than websites because they often encounter them in situations where they’d prefer interaction with a human.

Voice and Audio Interfaces Need Experience Design

January 26, 2014

Voice interfaces challenge some users.

While conducting usability testing on an IVR system for a leading US consumer online brokerage firm, we discovered usability pitfalls specific to voice-response IVR systems vs. touch-tone systems. The root challenge of voice response is that they place an added burden on the user to remember specific voice commands.

Remembering to say “Account Settings” is more difficult than remembering to “Press one” when the user has an end goal in mind. Using voice prompts requires the user to understand the structure and language of your system rather than relying on something they already know. People are familiar with numbers and how they are ordered, reducing the cognitive load placed on the user.

Check out these tips and tricks for improving the usability of voice-response phone systems.

Keep the Information Architecture simple

Users of voice response systems are literally “flying blind” with no visual guideposts to help them – not even the numbers on the phone keypad. Processing and remembering more than four main menu options on a phone system is challenging for humans. It is especially difficult when the user has to remember specific voice commands rather than numbers representing options. George Miller’s landmark article points out limits on human’s ability to process dimensions of speech.  ( Keeping the information architecture simple and voice commands short is critical.

Ensure consistency in universal commands.

Stick with the same common or universal commands throughout the entire system. For Yes, always ask the user to say “Yes”;  not “Yes” sometimes and “Correct” other times. Universal commands such as “Back”, “Repeat” and “Main Menu” provide affordances which help callers recover from errors and navigate, especially when new to your system.

Communicate the main menu command early and often.

If all else fails, users need a safety net to get back to the beginning. Tell callers early in the process how to return to the main menu.  “To hear the main menu at any time, say ‘Main Menu’.”

Use your users’ language.

Use language and terms your customers use. Stay away from internal jargon.  If you don’t know what terms your users use, conduct user research to find out.

Offer both voice and touch-tone option.

If possible, give users the option of pressing a number or saying a number is the best of both worlds and provides for more accessibility. “For customer service, press or say three”.

In an increasingly voice-controlled world, these principles extend even beyond phone systems and customer service lines. But it is important to use them to establish clear, consistent experiences within the front lines of customer interaction first.