April 9, 2001

Tips for friendly telephone services

Summary: Telephone services, otherwise known as "voice mail", are usually hard to use and frustrating. There are certain guidelines that make such systems more user-friendly, though.

Most people in the modern world have encountered an automatic telephone service, or "voice mail". Usually, these are very complicated systems that have a terrible interface. Why? Users can't understand the whole thing; they have no way of knowing where they want to navigate to in the service.

In saying that, users are told the "options" that are available to them, but they can't get any kind of snapshot mental model that will help them find what they're looking for. If anything is worded strangely, or if whatever they're looking for is somewhat ambiguous and could be found in any number of "menus", they'll probably never find it, and they'll probably end up doing one of the following things:

Let me make one thing clear: in all circumstances, I recommend a human instead of any kind of automatic telephone system because humans are better at explaining things and solving problems than are recordings. But, there are some cases in which an automatic telephone service of some kind is necessary or preferred by businesses, especially for cost reasons. So, how do you do it right?

A good service: Bell Canada's Directory Assistance

I consider Bell Canada's "411" directory assistance as reached from their payphones to be an example of excellent interaction design. Since I do not have a payphone handy, I am recalling the service from memory. I have absolutely no idea how the system works (the technical implementation), but as you'll see, that doesn't matter. Here is an example of a typical session with Bell Canada's Directory Assistance service:

Recording: For English, say English. Pour la ser...
Me: English
Recording: Are you looking for a business number?
Me: Yes
Recording: For what province?
Me: Québec
Recording: For what city?
Me: Ste. Foy
Recording: For what name?
Me: Holiday Inn
Recording: A number has been found for Holiday Inn in Ste. Foy. Would you like to hear it?

Even with my very imperfect French accent, the service was somehow able to pick up the correct names entirely. Friends with noticeable accents also have no trouble using the service.

The first thing that makes Bell Canada's Directory Assistance service so useful is that it has a clearly defined function. Users call for one reason only, and that is, to find phone numbers for people or businesses.

The second thing that makes the service so useful is that it actually works with the medium of telephone communication. Most services require button presses, which is not something that users typically do during calls. Users have conversations during calls, and Bell's service is just that: a natural conversation. Users who are familiar with the telephone (nearly everyone) can easily use the service, and they don't have to memorize choices or do something that breaks their concentration or flow.

I am not sure whether a human listens to the user's responses, or whether voice recognition software is interpreting his words. In any case, the user doesn't care. He is easily able to use the service and more quickly reach his personal goals, whatever they may be.

Some bad ideas (don't do these)

Bell Canada may have a good service, but most interactive telephone services are rather lacklustre in terms of user interaction. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:

One other beef I have with telephone services is their uncanny knack for disconnecting innocent users. Test your telephone services, particularly if they are separate systems connected to each other.

Some good ideas (do these)

There are lots of ways to improve telephone services for users. Some of these are quite obvious, but I'll reiterate them for the benefit of ordinary people everywhere:

They're here to stay, so they'd better be useful

Telephone services are not going away, but they could start getting better any time now. If companies want to streamline customer support or messaging services, and save money, they have to make sure that their telephone services are effective. If not, they'll have a lot of unhappy customers (or employees) on their hands. Significant services require a lot of research and meticulously refined interaction. But even voice mail needs care: just how do you type "Quizno" on a telephone?

Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.