VUI Design

Creating an IVR

Most people don’t think about how those computer phone systems (Interactive Voice Response systems) are made but actually it’s quite a process. It may not seem like it (as with the design of many everyday items) but a lot of planning and consideration goes into designing a phone system.

Step 1: Requirements Gathering
Either the designer or a full-time requirements person will work with the client to gather requirements. For instance, what are the primary reasons for calls, what options can be automated, what types of call center agents will be available, what information must be collected from the user, and so on. As with all requirements gathering, you try to nail down as many details as possible so there are no surprises later.

Illustration representative of a "call flow"

Illustration representative of a “call flow”

Step 2: Call Flow
After requirements, a Voice User Interface (VUI) Designer lays out the call path in a flow chart (hence, “call flow”). At Convergys, for instance, we used Microsoft Visio to create the diagrams. This was the initial prototype for the final design and included all menus and the paths for each option. The modules consisted of simple prompts (statements the system made), dialogs (where the users had to respond), and then decisions (what to do once a response was captured). The final product looked much like the diagram on to the right.

Step 3: VUI Design
Once the high level call flow was produced, then the designer creates a Microsoft Word document with all the details including the actual wording that the voice talent would speak (that’s the voice the callers hear).

The document would also include any special instructions for what words (and/or touchtones) will be recognized (a speech recognition term called the “grammar”). Sometimes the speech recognition task is straightforward but other times this could get very complex and involve people called Speech Scientists. Open-ended prompts such as “How may I help you?” or “What city will you be traveling to?” can include 1000s of “utterances” in one grammar and require considerable work to ensure the system will recognize the caller.

Step 3a: Usability Test
For this step recruited participants come to the offices and use a prototype of the phone system based on pre-planned scenarios. This would help ensure the system was easy to navigate and catch any points of confusion before fully developing and testing the system and having it go live.

Step 3b: Voice Recordings
The last step in finalizing the VUI design process is getting the wording professionally recorded. As mentioned, those people are called “voice talents” and I actually worked with some pretty famous voices including “Julie” from Amtrak. Below is a link for a Saturday Night Live video parody of her.

Steps 4 – 6: Development, Test, Deployment
As in other software cycles, once the design is complete then developers code the system, testers test for bugs, then a final team deploys the application live and callers hear the system when dialing the appropriate number.

Step 7: Monitor -> Step 1: Requirements
Once deployed, there are people who will monitor the system and also provide data on how the system is working. If/When changes and updates are needed then the cycle repeats. That’s right, when it says “Calls recorded” people actually do hear those and respond – honest!

Sample Call

If you’re really interested, this PowerPoint contains a sample of a system I created: Sample of VUI Design

SNL Video – Parody of “Julie”

This is a funny Saturday Night Live clip poking fun at the voice talent Julie: