Tuesday, December 26, 2006

IVR versus Person

A recurrent discussion in my HCI classes is relating numerous user experiences with horrid IVRs  (Interactive Voice Response) and sharing techniques for cutting through the menus to contact a real person. I always cringe when I hear the complaints, since I have managed folks creating IVRs and I appreciate all the work they do to try to make such systems accurate, navigable and palatable.  Unfortunately, in many instances, the lack of flexibility in the telephony interface makes this difficult  at best.  The goal of many users encountering IVR systems is getting to an actual person.   Admittedly that has generally been my goal too!

However late last week two encounters in one day convinced me that IVRs done right can actually avoid aggravation.  My first experience that day was with XM radio. <digression> XM radio is a fine product but lately I have found I was not using it -- part of it was that it was a portable version and with my portable GPS and my cell phone, there were just too many darn wires floating through the car.  My next car will have integrated GPS and  some brand of subscription radio but for now the cell phone and GPS are more important. </digression>  I wanted to cancel it.  So I cruised through the IVR response trees and was finally connected with a person.  The attendant asked for all the information  including my equipment's ID and my address and then asked how she could help.  I said I wanted to cancel the service, she asked why, I told her I did not use it. She said okay she would transfer me to the cancellation department.  After a short wait, another attendant answered, asked again for all the information, seemingly bit by bit (I did grumble), and then asked how she could help.  Frustrated beyond belief I said I thought this was the cancellation department and I wanted to cancel my service.   She said it is the cancellation department and you guessed it - she asked why I wanted to cancel. After a minute she returned and stated that the refund check will be mailed to me in 2 to 3 weeks.  Of course I had to ask her for the amount.  Needless to say this entire user experience was poorly done.   Lest you think it occurred because I was canceling, my other two experiences with XM Radio customer support were similarly bad and that was when I asked to renew my subscription, to give them money.

Several hours pass and I am home.  While cruising through channels, Kath found pillows on QVC that were a great price.  I said I would order them.  I dialed the 800 number from our home line and the IVR asked for our pin. (We were a repeat customer.)  Since pillows were on the screen at the time it asked it that is what we wanted to order.  I said yes, indicated color and size with two more menus and the IVR repeated the order (all canned, pleasant, non synthetic speech) and that was that.  It literally took less than 2 minutes!  In 5 minutes the order was confirmed on my email account.  (I never received a similar confirmation from XM.)

Compare the two experiences.  QVC was optimized to save me time and to insure that the order was accurate.  Since I dialed from my home phone ANI, Automatic Number Identification, suggested my potential identity and providing my pin confirmed it.  The IVR was linked to programming so it knew what was likely being ordered and had a crisp script to get the necessary information.  In contrast XM Radio designed their IVR so that it would accommodate their fragmented systems.  Information was not transferred from interaction with the IVR to attendant 1 and from interaction from attendant 1 to attendant 2.  It accommodated their needs, not their customer's needs.  Additionally there was no confirmation even though it would have been simple to launch an email and check for accuracy.

In my adventures last week with XM Radio and QVC, I feel a bit more enthusiastic that someday I will want to access the IVR instead of a fallible attendant and that the hard work and design of HCI specialists and IVR developers will pay off.  At least in the QVC instance, the user experience was superb.  Note that the QVC instance made use of one of my pet HCI principles, the best interface is the one that has been eliminated through automation.

Sorry for such a long post!  I hope to accelerate through my back log over the next few months and hope you all are enjoying the holiday break and wish you all the best in 2007!  Later!