Chapter 3. The Basic Tenets

While designing your voicebot for high usability, remember the following five tenets. They will keep you safe from blind alleys and other UX design binds that are easy to get into if you are not careful but are difficult to recover from.

1. The voicebot is not a human

The voicebot is first and foremost a piece of technology and it exists to make the life of a human better. This is obvious, but it is worth stating and keeping in mind. The voicebot is not a human and it should never pretend to be a human or claim the privileges of a human. It can mimic a human, and it can lean on the techniques that humans use with each other to communicate effectively. But it should not behave in such a way that the user is fooled into thinking that the voicebot is as sophisticated and as emotionally intelligent as a human.

Here’s why.

First are ethical issues that such a voicebot would introduce. For instance, using politeness protocols, the voicebot could gain the trust of the user to such an extent that the user forgets that the voicebot is merely a tool that a private corporation or a government agency is using to enable the user to buy things from, or provide sensitive information, to the entities on behalf the voicebot is acting.

Second: behaving in a way that gives the user the impression that the voicebot is much smarter than it really is likely to result in the user conversing with it in a way that is likely to quickly outsrip the linguistic or conversational abilities of the voicebot, or may mislead the user to think that the voicebot can fulfill more requests than it really can.

Avoid this:

  • Voicebot: Fairfax Power. This is Nancy. How can I help you?

Use this:

  • Voicebot: <Chime>. Fairfax Power. Which of the following do you want me to help you with: Report a power outage, Ask a question about my bill, or Something else.

2. The voicebot should be as smart as the data that it has -- and no more!

The voicebot should make the most of the information it has about the user and the context of its interaction with that user and it is the designer’s responsibility to engage with the product manager and then engineers to find out what is readily at their disposal and what can be made at their disposal through additional development that is within the scope and budget of the project. For instance, would the designer be able to tap into the user’s preferences? How about the preferences of most users who are engaging with the voicebot? Are there patterns of behavior that can be leveraged to anticipate and interpret the meaning of what users say and do? How about the physical constraints within which the users are interacting with the voicebot, or the social constraints (is anyone else in the room while the voicebot and the user are talking) or the psychological constraints (are they anxious, angry) ?

Here are some examples.

Assume that there was a power outage and that you are reaching out to the Google action on your smartphone that Fairfax Power, your provider, has published. Assume also that Fairfax Power is aware that it is dealing with an extensive power outage (say, after a severe storm).

Avoid this:

  • Human: Hey Google, launch Fairfax Power.

  • Voicebot: <Chime>. Fairfax Power. Which of the following do you want me to help you with: Report a power outage, Ask a question about my bill, or Something else.

Design this:

  • Human: Hey Google, launch Fairfax Power.

  • Voicebot: <Chime>. Fairfax Power. Are you reaching out to report a power outage?

Now assume that things are back to normal. And assume also that Fairfax Power knows that during normal operations, 87% of the requests that they receive are from customers asking about their bill.

Avoid this:

  • Human: Hey Google, launch Fairfax Power.

  • Voicebot: <Chime>. Fairfax Power. Which of the following do you want me to help you with: Report a power outage, Ask a question about my bill, or Something else?

  • Human:Yes. I have a question about my bill.

Design this:

  • Human: Hey Google, launch Fairfax Power.

  • Voicebot: <Chime>. Fairfax Power. Do you have a question about your bill?

  • Human: Yes.

3. The voicebot should be consistent

The voicebot should not use different words for the same entity in its language with the human. It should also stick with only one voice and change that voice only when it makes sense (for instance, the voicebot is telling a story with multiple characters). It should not change the language register that it uses (for instance, going from formal to informal).

Avoid this:

  • Voicebot: What’s the six digit case number assigned to your issue?

  • Human: It’s 781656

  • Voicebot: Got it. I see that this ticket is being worked on. Expect a resolution within the next 30 minutes. An email will be sent to you as soon as the issue has been resolved.

Design this:

  • Voicebot: What’s the six digit number assigned to your issue?

  • Human: It’s 781656

  • Voicebot: Got it. I see that the issue is being worked on. Expect a resolution within the next 30 minutes. An email will be sent to you as soon as the issue has been resolved.

4. The voicebot should be transparent

The human should always know if they are speaking with a human, with a voicebot, or with a voicebot assisted by humans behind the scene. Again, setting aside ethical issues, a user who knows that they are speaking with a voicebot will probably behave in a way that will increase the likelihood of a successful interaction than one who thinks that they are engaged with a human.

Avoid this:

  • Voicebot: Hi there. This is Nancy from Fairfax Power. How are you today?

  • Human: I’m well, and you?

  • Voicebot: Can’t complain. So, how can I be of help?

Design this:

  • Voicebot: <Chime>. Fairfax Power. Which of the following do you want me to help you with: Report a power outage, Ask a question about my bill, or Something else.

  • Human: I have a question about my bill.

The voicebot should also be transparent about the data that it is collecting. For instance, if the voicebot is one that is engaged through a telephone, if it is saving off the phone number of the caller or it is recording the conversation, the user should be informed that their caller ID is being stored or that the call is being recorded. In the case of a voicebot that is being used on a smartphone, if the voicebot wishes to save the location of the user, the user should be informed and asked for their permission.

5. The voicebot should behave respectfully

The voicebot should never be disrespectful to the user. What does it mean for a voicebot to be respectful to a user?

For instance, the user should respect the user’s time by not having the user suffer through long prompts, or by proactively telling the user how long they need to wait for an agent, offering to the user the option to be called back.

Another example of respectful behavior respecting the user’s freedom. For instance, letting the user opt-out if they don’t want to interact with the voicebot or let them get back to the voicebot while waiting.

Tell the the human the truth would be another example of respectful behavior. Yes, voicebots have been known to tell untruths. For example, the voicebot should not tell the user that they are going to be connected to a human agent and then have them interact with, say, another voicebot.

An example of disrespectful behavior would be to terminate an interaction unilaterally: the act of ending a conversation unilaterally is the ultimate act of disrespect in the context of conversations. So, always make sure that you design your voicebots so that the end of the exchanges does not come across to the human user as a result of a unilateral decision made by the voicebot.

And there are many other examples.

But, in a nutshell, when you are designing, always keep this at the back of your mind: ‘Even if the human user that I am designing for understands that the voicebot is a mere machine and that it doesn’t mean to be disrespectful, if the voicebot behaves in this way that I’m thinking of designing to, would the human feel slighted? If yes, then I need to design some other behavior.’

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