All posts by eolvera

Eduardo Olvera is a Senior VUI Designer with a passion for Information Architecture, Usability and Dialog Design, for touch-tone and speech recognition systems, in English, Spanish and French. For more information:

Be careful what you brand for

I normally get my fair share of laughs (and tears) from listening to user call recordings and their experiences while using automated systems. But a friend of mine just sent me one from a user interacting with a call center agent.

We all know that the use of jargon and technical terminology can cause confusion on the user’s mind, but this is one of those rare cases where the problem comes from the branding decisions the company made.

To be honest with you, at first I though it was a prank call, but then over the course of the call you can hear traffic noise on the background (the user seems to have been calling from a public phone), and even some side-speech towards the end, so I think this was indeed a real caller with real concerns and confusion.

Just a little bit of background first. The name of the company is Telcel, and they are one of the largest cell phone service providers in Mexico, and as most service providers in the US, they also provide pre-paid plan alternatives. Just like AT&T has branded such plans as ” GoPhone“, in this case they opted for the name “Amigo”, which when translated literally means “Friend”, and that’s where the confusion started…

Disclaimer: If you speak Spanish, I suggest listening to the whole call first. Otherwise, simply scroll down and read the a translated transcription of some interaction snippets that are a good testament of what can go wrong when you have confusing product names.

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Priceless conversation points:

[User] “When I want to make a call, it tells me that my Amigo’s balance has been used-up. But I want to know about my balance, not my friend’s balance”
[Agent] (you can almost hear her laughing her head off)
[User] “I’m not interested in knowing if my friend has a balance, I want to know mine”

At that point, the agent kindly explains to the user that if she’s consulting the balance from her phone, then that means the balance she is hearing belongs to her, and that “Amigo” is simply the name of the service.

Nevertheless, the user continues:

“It also tells me that I can add $30 of airtime with an Amigo. So, do I have to give $30 to my friend to do so?”

Amazing, isn’t it? Well, aside from the funny aspects of it, the other part that I noticed is that even though the agent understood the situation and could probably tell that this user is struggling with the concepts, she doesn’t adapt her conversation to the current situation and sticks to scripted messages, full of more branded terms and jargon such as “to make a deposit you’ll require an electronic record or re-charge card”, “you will need to visit a location to buy an Amigo card to enter it into your phone, scratching the access code and dialing *333”

In my last post I talked about the elements that all recovery strategies should have, but in this case, even though the agent explained the situation and provided a solution, I think she left the empathy out of the question, probably leaving our “Amiga” even more confused.

The Art (and Humor) of Error Messages

Error recovery strategies and the verbiage around them has always been a hot topic of debate. We’ve all heard the classical “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you.” and “I’m sorry I didn’t understand you.” messages that are normally implemented as global prefixes to further attempts to help users get back on track. Some other designers prefer to eliminate this generic approach and opt instead for a more context-sensitive alternative, where based on the possible cause of error, you could very well eliminate them completely and simply attempt to reprompt the user in a more natural way, with maybe a slight change in intonation to convey the meaning of “Hello, are you listening to me?” in a subtle way.

In regards to the content of the error messages themselves, we’ve all heard that they should not simply be repetitions of what the user has already heard, but rather slightly different variations based on the context and possible cause of the problem in the first place, so as to try to help them recover: is it due to a noisy environment? is the user providing me more information than I’m requesting? are they struggling to find it? do they need more time? are they getting confused by what I’m asking?, etc.

Of course, errors are nothing new and are particularly prevalent in the software and web world, where the value of the message and its ability to help users recover is very often dubious (or flat out ridiculous), resulting in bad user experiences. Some examples:

“Unknown Error -1”

“Keyboard error (press F1 to resume)”

“Wrong parameter”

“An unexpected error occurred, because an error of type – 110 occurred.”

“It is not necessary to dial 0 after the country code for this country.” (If they know that, why not simply recognize it, remove/ignore the 0 and move on?)

Some others here and here.

With that in mind, I have to say I found it very refreshing when my Firefox browser recently crashed and I was presented with the following message:

I found a few interesting things about it that made me think about my own error prompts:

  1. It’s unexpected – talk about user expectations. You know having an error (or crashing in this case) is not fun. Yet the unexpected style distracts you and in my case made me feel a little better about the situation (ok, ok, I’ll admit it, it made me smile)
  2. Even though it had a funny side, it was still useful. It clearly states what the problem was in terms I understand (my windows and tabs), plus it gives me a possible reason for the problem which might help me avoid the problem in the future (a recent web page)
  3. It provides solutions on how to fix it

Reduce the negative impact of an error + clear description of error + clear explanation of the possible cause + alternatives to solve it. When was the last time your error messages achieved all these goals?

Back from the break

Wow, I didn’t realize how long it’s been since my last post. I guess the good news is that it has been because I’ve been really busy, which for you means new and very interesting stuff is coming soon with regards to VUI design in even wider (and more recent) contexts such as vehicles, multimodality, iPhones, Blackberries, etc.

It’s great to be back!

Objectified food for thought – Part 1

As you know, I enjoy looking at other fields that might have design elements that could be leveraged in a speech and multimodal world.

My latest discovery was the film “Objectified” by Gary Hustwit. Even though the documentary is centered around the topic of Industrial Design and the process by which well known products are designed, created and injected into the marketplace, there are some great quotes by various designers that I couldn’t help but feel compelled to share with you and analyze in an attempt to find a way to apply them to our field. With so many quotes, I though this might be better off divided in parts so people can add comments and share their own insights and experiences. Let’s get started:

“What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes – the weakest, with arthritis, the athlete, the strongest, the fastest – because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.” — Dan Formosa, Design and Research, Smart Design

Wow, what a way to start this topic! After readings this one, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about perpetuating the common design approach of the 80-20 rule. We try to capture what 20% of the population which will use 80% of the features might do, add support for a few other common “corner cases”, and ignore the really obscure and unlikely scenarios altogether. This point definitively made me wonder what if… what if we were to do it backwards, design by looking at those extremes – the distracted caller, the multitasking mom, the user that requires extra time to process the information or respond – and letting the middle take care of itself.

Case in point, the creation of the Oxo kitchenware, a peeler originally designed for people with arthritis that turned out to be more comfortable and easier to use for everyone!

“What we’re really always looking for whenever we design are ways we can improve the way people do things or improve their daily life… without them really even knowing, ever thinking about it.” — Davin Stowell, CEO & Founder, Smart Design

Another quote from Smart Design, but this time addressing the reasons behind our designs. How often are we really looking for ways in which we can improve how people do things or improve their lives? How often can we articulate this need and help evaluate it in the context of other seemingly more important needs such as completion rates, retention and automation? Can we really tell we designed something that not only solved someone’s issue or allowed them to complete their task but that in fact had a positive impact on them without them even knowing? Quite a challenge (and intrinsic motivator for me)!

“Good design should be innovative. Good design should make a product useful. Good design is aesthetic design. Good design will make a product understandable. Good design is honest. Good design is unobtrusive. Good design is long-lived. Good design is consistent in every detail. Good design is environmentally friendly. Good design is as little design as possible.” — Dieter Rams, Former Design Director, Braun

I think Mr. Rams said it perfectly. Seeing what goes on inside the minds of product creators behind brands like Braun and their philosophy definitively makes me appreciate the responsibility of a designer.

That’s it for part 1. Stay tuned for more quotes and nuggets of wisdom. And if you get a chance, watch the movie, you won’t regret it (and your users will appreciate it)!

Where did my option go

During any Requirement’s Gathering process, one of the hardest yet most critical steps involves finding out the features that will be offered to the users. Figuring out the final set normally involves talking to agents, listening to the different business units, looking at statistics, etc.

Furthermore, if the customer is migrating from an existing system to a new one, part of the process also involves reevaluating the set of features currently being offered to determine which ones should be migrated and which ones should be eliminated for good (which very often becomes a challenge by itself since customers tend to feel that by doing so, they are “loosing” functionality)

Some of the tools available to us include performing a Usability test on an existing system, doing a benchmark analysis to compare features offered by competitors, looking at usage data to determine the frequency of usage of each existing feature, or setting up focus groups or customer surveys to explore the likely usage of new features.

So yes, there are way to figure out how often they might use a certain feature or what they might think about it, but how do you gauge how deeply your users care about those features?

Well, while watching a recent Burger King stunt (an interesting mix of market research and marketing) in which they made one of their US branches a “Whooper Free Zone”, and recorded via hidden cameras the reactions of their customers upon being told that they were no longer serving Whooper sandwiches (see video below).

This stunt made me think about a tool that designers don’t use very often: Subtraction.

By that I mean that very often we run complex studies and champion-challenger scenarios (aka A-B designs) to figure out what the best combination of items might be, or what the impact of adding one more choice will have on a user base. But how often do you test the impact of removing a choice both from a performance as well as from an emotional perspective? (and no, I’m not talking about those bad designs where options are so buried down or words are so poorly chosen that it’s almost impossible for users to find what they need or realize what they need is in front of their eyes (or ears).

So, next time you’re thinking about your users and the options they need, consider subtraction as one more tool in your ever-growing UI toolkit. And if you’ve used before, I’d be very interested in knowing what your results were.

See you at SpeechTEK 2009

Oh yeah, it’s that time of the year again. If you’re planning to attend this year’s SpeechTEK in New York, please stop by and say hi.

Also, you can now look at the final version of the program. In particular, I would like to invite you to the following sessions:

  1. Introduction to Voice User Interface Design (STKU-2)

    Sunday August 23rd, from 1:30 PM to 5:00 PM. This workshop is designed to quickly get those new to VUI design up-to-speed so they can make the most of the Principles of VUI Design track at the conference

  2. Efficient Design (B102)

    Monday August 24rd, from 11:15 AM to 12:00 PM. Here we’ll talk about “Truths and Myths About Reusable Designs”. How can you design for reuse? Can user requirements be captured the standard way?

  3. Bilingual Spanish/English Design (B301)

    Wednesday August 26th, from 10:45 AM to 11:30 AM. Here we’ll talk about “How to Present Names of
    Geographical Locations in Spanish Systems”. Yes, listening for and capturing names of places seems like a trivial task, but what factors should be considered when making translation/pronunciation decision? What do those decisions say about you and your company?

Safe travels, and see you there.

ROE is the new ROI

Someone recently brought to my attention the fantastic keynote presentation by Bill Buxton (the author of Sketching User Experiences) from this year’s Mix 09 event.

The concepts and ideas mentioned by Bill — particularly the notion of ROE or Return On Experience — resonated so much with me, that I think his vision should help anyone in the Design profession feel awesome about what they do (even though most people still don’t really understand what is it we do) and feel energized about the potential and future of any User Experience profession.

One of the points I completely agree with is the notion of learning from the past (both successes and failures) and figuring out how to exploit that past, not in the sense of simply copying what has been done before, but to figure out how relevant the core concepts might be, and figure out how to bring them over to our time, age and circumstance. As he points out, that’s the real definition of Creativity, Design, and of course, ROE.
The second point I loved, had to do with Experiences. He makes the point of how in the past everyone focused on the products and the services, but now we need to refocus and be aware that the real differentiation now comes from what a product, image, or sound might trigger in us! And figuring out the origin of the feeling we’re trying to provoke in our users is the real art of what we do.

“How can we tailor what we’re making to generate those feelings?”

The third point I want to mention is his assessment of how nowadays the Interface is just as important as the Object, yet it is really hard to sketch/prototype interfaces as fast as we do products in rapid iterations. He also added that it is not about a device/product/service, it is about the whole ecosystem (think iPod + iTunes). And along this idea of prototyping, he points out that going through multiple iterations is the essence of Design, in fact, that is the only way to explore a more broad design space compared to the typical process of choosing a single direction and spending time and effort refining it.

I think he summarized his concepts in a beautiful way:

“Our job is not to answer questions. It’s to ask the right questions to get us to the right question that would get us to the right answer.”

What do you think? How many different variants have you done lately for each of your designs?

You can watch the full presentation here, or download it from here (Windows Media Audio/Video file, 748 MB).

Speech and Mobile Usability

A very interesting report from Nielsen was recently published highlighting some of the challenges mobile users face when accessing web information.

Aside from the sad news about average success rates being around 59%, it was interesting to me to see how most of the Mobile Problems outlined in the report can be actually seen as opportunities to seriously consider the use of Speech Recognition.

I know most companies suggest Speech Recognition as the killer app for mobile devices, but I would argue that it should be seen instead as the ideal complementary mode of interaction when navigating the internet and retrieving information on mobile devices, not as the silver bullet that would solve all mobility hurdles.

For example, thinking about speech in the context of those problems raised in the report:

  • Small screens: Yes, small size is a natural result of being portable. Yet, having a limited number of options at any given time and relying on short-term memory are the bread and butter of most Speech Recognition Systems. Therefore, adding an audible element and allowing users to express themselves in more natural ways helps compensate those visual limitations. Furthermore, multislot interactions and natural language understanding help alleviate the challenge of multiple windows and advanced behaviors present in purely visual interactions.
  • Awkward input (especially for typing): Once again, Speech Recognition shines here since it’s the facto way of interaction amongst humans. Words can easily trump visual counterparts such as menus, buttons, and links not only because of how natural interactions are but also because it avoids the inherent limitations of tiny keypads, trackballs and mini-keyboards.
  • Download delays: Even though Speech cannot solve the problem of being able to download screens faster, it can help in those instances where information can be delivered in an audible form since users can continue to interact with the system and move along their intended goal since prompts and logic can be embedded in a device without requiring network connectivity or optimized and compressed for faster delivery.

Google Voice and three truths about testing

Very interesting debate was triggered by the recent tests (Part 1 and Part 2) on Google Voice performed by readers of the Gadgetwise blog.

The overall premise was for readers to call the article?s writer phone number and leave a creative voicemail to gauge the effectiveness of Google?s voicemail transcription system.

Even though at first glance this seems to be another “why speech recognition isn’t ready for prime time” type of article (yes, I know the author claimed they wanted to test the boundaries of the technologies, but as many readers pointed out, individual items such as the president?s name aren?t that far fetched and should?ve worked), I think it also brings up some interesting issues often faced when testing speech recognition systems:

1) What are we testing? – This one very often depends on who you?re talking to, particularly on the business side of things. Some team members look care about containment rates (how many individuals stay in a system without having to talk to an agent), some others care about transfer rates (the increase or decrease in the volume of calls going into the call center), while some others care about customer experience (how long does it take for someone to solve accomplish their goal), and even a few (sorry to say upper management included) call systems to see how well they work when given odd statements or commands, or even worse, how close the system matches their particular expectations (without taking into consideration how the system was designed in the first place). So for me, this is one of the most important aspects of any system, which should be captured as part of the requirements phase – knowing what project owners want to test allows you to stir your design in the right direction (and push back when necessary as early as possible). For example, in the case of these Google Voice tests, there were some very interesting comments from readers because some felt they were testing the accuracy of the transcriptions, while others thought the test should only involve how well is the overall intent being captured, while some others (sadly) though they were testing how does speech recognition work nowadays.

2) How are we testing it? – This one depends a lot on what the answer to #1 might be. For example, in the case of Google Voice, I felt the test would?ve been much more valid if readers were asked to forward samples of their own voicemails into the writer?s voicemail (meaning real world examples) instead of having them come up with messages that seemed to have turned into a challenge to see who came up with the one that broke the system the most. Going back to some of the things business owners normally want to test, some of the methods in which we might need to test those items might vary significantly: for example, to test containment or transfer rates, one should not only look at raw numbers but at reasons behind those numbers – it?s very different if the numbers are driven by users exceeding a failure threshold than if they are due to users pressing 0 or if they are truly due to business requirements whose proper behavior is to retain/transfer the user.

3) What do these results mean? Particularly when dealing with numbers and percentages, the interpretation of results if very often tricky. For example, would you modify a menu if 50% of your users end up making the wrong selection? (I?m sure your gut reaction is “yes”, “of course”)… but what if that number is based on 2 out of 4 users that someone listened to during a morning?s test? Similarly, we sometimes run into situations where decisions are based solely on someone?s like or dislike (often C-level individuals) about how the system is performing (subjective analysis) without any consideration for the reasons behind the choice, the data of a much larger sample, or the fact that the system might still be on a pre-pilot phase that will eventually get tuned. I felt this was probably one of the main things lacking from the article.

The examples are definitively interesting (and funny sometimes), but I think it would?ve been worth doing some sort of analysis about the possible reasons behind some of those misrecognitions (line quality, odd pausing, user?s accents, etc.) as well as a more detailed explanation of what the transcription process really is. Some readers might think the results reflect the accuracy of an advanced speech recognition engine when in reality most transcription processes out there in the market involve a hybrid environment where the recognition engine might perform the first pass, and then human beings perform a second pass, reviewing what the machine recognized and/or interpreting those segments the machine might not have been able to recognize in the first place.

Have you tried it yet?

More on documentation and creativity

It was very interesting that we were just recently talking about what it would take to make documentation actually useful, and a couple of weeks later I heard about a new book by the GuiMags guys (creators of a magnet-based prototyping tool for interface design) titled “The Unplugged.”

What I find very interesting about it is that as part of being a UI designer, I’ve always had a passion for creativity in general — tools, techniques, case studies, etc. — and one of the common themes that comes up in relation to Creativity and Design is that sometimes, the only way to design something right is to go analog.

Analog? Let me clarify. What I mean by that is that before you write your first line of code, before you create the first page of that design document, before you draw that first block in your call flow, you need to turn the computer off, step away from it (yes, laptops too), grab a pad of paper and a pencil, and start drafting your ideas.

I know it sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes all those software tools we’re so used to in fact hinder our creativity because they force us to adapt our way of thinking to the inherent rules and restrictions of each individual software package. We’re visual creatures: anyone can take a napkin and a pen and quickly sketch a new idea or a solution to a problem (this is my favorite book on this subject), yet those same individuals often remain quiet during design meetings and let the “creative” members take the lead role since they can create breathtaking digital images and amazing presentations with digital effects.

Next time you’re faced with a new design challenge, give it a try, unplug yourself, go analog for a little bit and let your brain and hand take control. Great things will emerge, believe me.