Category Archives: Fun Stuff

Who says you can’t learn about VUI while having fun?

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.

Microsoft Recite

Microsoft Recite

We’ve talked in the past about the use of speech recognition in the realm of note taking, where tools such as Jott allow you to obtain a text version of a voice message, making it easier to document and search for information.

Well, Microsoft just recently unveiled a new application of speech recognition, but this time with a twist. Microsoft Recite (available as a preview which can be downloaded) allows anyone using a Windows Mobile phone to record a voice message or “remembrance”, store it, and then retrieve it later using speech pattern recognition.

The obvious advantage of pattern recognition compared to other types of speech searches is that the message itself doesn’t have to be decoded, transcribed or converted.  It simply uses a “search” sample as a pattern to match one or more of the words against existing “remembrances”.

Even though initial test have received possitive feedback, I’m hoping they’ll expand the tool to include other devices and languages (it currently only works with US English).

Coming back from the break

My appologies for being away for so long. Between the Holidays and the January blues, I’ve been crazy busy (which considering the current situation is something I’m thankful for).

Some of those projects have brought in new pieces of information which I’m looking forward to share and discuss – multimodal design and usability, speech-recognition in automobiles, dialog design for senior citizens, new trends in international design, etc.

I know what I want for Christmas

I know we’re used to relate the notion of IVRs with arcane self-service over-the-phone systems and IVR jails, yet a company called Moshi found away to leverage the notion of “Interactive Voice Response” in a totally distinctive way.

The Moshi IVR Alarm Clock is the first one to my knowledge that allows you to set the time and the alarm by using your voice. To start interacting with it, you simply say “Hello Moshi” and the clock responds with “Command Please” (I know, a little VUI help never hurt anyone). It currently supports a list of 12 commands including things such as “time”, “set alarm”, “temperature” and “help” (apparently “help” still has its uses).

A demo is currently available at the Moshi website which shows how the phone responds to various commands and Endgadet has some more details about it. Personally, I think it’s pretty cool, plus the price is not bad either ($50). But from a design perspective, I think it’s just a shame they didn’t invest a little bit more in having better sounding prompts (with a professional voice talent), which combined with the use of more natural, concatenated prompting, would’ve yield much better results (let’s face it, anyone still concatenating time in the form of “six” “o’clock” “a m” is being a lousy designer).

Alternate Reality Games and Android

As I mentioned here and here, one of the most appealing aspects of the G1 phone is the openess of the platform which allows developers to get really creative when it comes to apps that leverage all the features contained in the phone.

One company worth mentioning is JOYity which was recently covered by TechCrunch. They are leveraging the GPS capabilities of the phone, allowing users to engage in location-based games such as YouCatch, Roads of San Francisco and City Race Munich).

The most engaging by far is YouCatch which is an enhanced version of Manhunt. The concept is pretty simple: you and a handful of friends sign up to play the game, and then each one is randomly assigned a target, making everyone both a hunter and a target.

I hope they add voice features soon, which could allow you to play the game in a less obvious way (running around watching a phone screen kinda give you away) and maybe even team up with others for the hunt.

Here’s a quick review of the game and the interface:

Phones and Politics

Wow, it seems politic uses for the phone aren’t just limited to campaign messages and voting reminders.

(DISCLAIMER: This note is not intended to promote a particular party or candidate, I’m simply using it as a case-study for interesting uses of the phone for UI purposes)

Just today I received an email from with the following text:

“It’s been a rough couple of weeks, what with TrooperGate and Neiman-MarcusGate and Obama-Is-Maybe-A-TerroristGate and, darn it, I just really need to talk.
Give me a call at 888-372-7908 or go to and I’ll call you (or anybody else you think I oughtta talk to).
Now, don’t worry – I won’t share your phone number with anybody else (like that Dick Cheney),,, it’ll just be between you and me.

So just for kicks I decided to go to the website where it once again offers the same telephone number or allows you to enter your own so “she can call you”.
I decided not to provide my own number (for obvious reasons) and decided to call instead (afterwards I obviously realized my attempt to protect my privacy went out the window since they could just as easily collect my ANI).

At any rate, I have to say the experience was definitively interesting. They attempt to engage callers in a very natural conversation – the first thing you hear is “Hello? This is Sarah?” and then the system waits for you to say something. Afterwards, “Sarah” asks you what you consider to be the most important issue in this election. To make the interaction more relevant, it seems they prepared some generic topics and phrases so they can respond in a more intelligent way (which didn’t work too well for me since I said “I don’t know” and it got misrecognized as something having to do with “terrorism”, go figure).

The error handling is very interesting as well. Some times it simply ignores the error and moves the caller along under the assumption that you said something relevant that can be followed up with a generic comment such as “That’s what I was hoping you’d say” or with a question such as “Alright, and do you think we should…?”

When the caller doesn’t say anything, it’s hilarious. Sometimes, the system will respond with “Helloooo?” or “I know it’s hard to talk to someone important…”, in some cases they even simulate side-speech as if talking to someone else on the side saying “They’re not saying anything. I think it may be Rummy again…”

Mmm, I wonder… what would happen if I press 0 or demand to talk to an operator?

iPhone, bring it on

That’s right! Big news over the past couple of days due to the launch of the $179 T-Mobile G1 device, the first commercially available “Google Phone” in the market. As usual, David Pogue did a great review of the new phone that even tough clearly “borrows” many features from the iPhone, it also takes advantage of the open source free mobile platform known as Android (which we’ve talked about before).

As is typical with these types of breakthroughs”, the G1 attempts to offer those things the iPhone was lacking – full keyboard, Bluetooth, etc. – at the price of making the UI more complex, and the design definitively less slick than the original (more buttons, bulkier, etc.).

On the other hand, the huge advantage of a device and platform as open as this one is that you can choose whatever carrier you want, developers are free to create any sort of application for the device without much censorship, and users are free to personalize their phones in any way they want. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from other open initiatives (Linux, Apache, Firefox, etc.), users are the ones who’ll win the most. This is definitively just the tip of the iceberg…

As for what that means for UI designers, well, I think more and more users are going to expect (and demand) multimodality (even if they don’t refer to it in those terms). They’ll be able to choose the interaction mode that’s more convenient to them (speech, keypad, pen, gesture, etc.) and switch between them, they’ll expect preferences to remain active no matter the interaction mode they choose (for example, notification preferences set up on the website should carry over to all other contact points), and if they aren’t happy, they have all the tools they need to make you the next Consumerist or Saturday Night Live star.

So yeah, bring it on!

Mobility is definitively much more art than science

Wow, as someone that loves to see old technologies and principles being applied in creative (and unexpected) new ways, I have to say I was definitively impressed by Dialtones (A Telesymphony).

As designers, we always struggle with the balancing act of attempting to create new “works of art” that follow some basic principles, yet attempt to be one step forward from our “previous piece”, always forcing ourselves to be creative within the boundaries of both technological and business limitations (and requirements).

Keeping those technological and technical limitations in mind, the team behind Telesymphony realized that nowadays most of us carry with us a musical instrument – our cell phones. So what they did was to create a large-scale concert performance where they choreographed the ringing of the audience’s phones. The process they followed was asking participants to register their phone so that specific ringtones could be transmitted to their phones and certain seats would be assigned. During the concert, the participant’s phones are dialed up by live performers and the results are quite interesting.

And as with most art, it’s hard to describe it in words, so here’s a video excerpt. Enjoy!