Usability and Voice-Response IVR

IVR systems – like websites – need a little usability T.L.C..
Customers are even less forgiving with phone-based systems than with websites because they often encounter them in customer-service situations where they’d prefer to be interacting with a human.

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 of challenges with voice response is the added burden on the user to remember specific voice commands.  Remembering to say “Account Settings” to get somewhere in the system is more difficult than remembering to “Press one”. 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 usability of voice-response phone systems.


Keep the IA simple:  Users of voice response IVR systems are literally “flying blind” with no visual guideposts to help them – not even the numbers on the phone keypad. Processing more than four main menu options on a phone system is challenging for humans, and is especially difficult when the task of using and remembering specific voice commands to navigate the system is layered on.  George Miller’s landmark article points out limits on human’s ability to process dimensions of speech.  ( So keeping the IA 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” 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. “For customer service, press or say three”.