The Sytel Blog Team (from left):
Ian Turner (Development
Michael McKinlay (CEO)
Garry Pearson (CTO)
IVR design - best practice
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I am in a hospital lobby. It is dark. No-one else is
around. I need to book an appointment but the lighting is
terrible and the signs are full of words I don’t understand,
like echocardiology and gastroenterology.
I follow what I think is the correct arrow.
I get to the next signpost, but this is no better. I must
have taken a wrong turn. I go back and try again.
Then I see the big red button on the wall marked ‘Press
for help’. I suppress my own feelings of inadequacy for not
understanding the signs and, relieved, I press it. And wait.
You can see where I’m going here.
The aim of IVR is either
- to enable users
to help themselves without agent involvement, or
- to route users to the right agent who can satisfy
them in a single call
But many people’s experience of
IVR systems has been
rather like my (fictitious) nightmare – more Kafka than
This is primarily because of bad
IVR design. There is no
justifiable reason for it (although designing complex
logic is notoriously difficult without a visual design
tool), and it has put many people off IVR for life.
IVR systems often frustrate and annoy by not following
these simple pointers to best practice.
- Design should be customer-centric. IVR is about what
the customer needs, not what you can offer.
- Put the most popular choices early, e.g. ‘To pay a
bill, press 1. For anything else, press 2.’ Analysis of
customer call patterns will give pointers as to what is
high on the list.
- Pain #1 in using IVR is often ‘Can’t find the right
a) use as few options as possible.
Research suggests a maximum of 3. This should remove the
need for the ‘To hear these options again…’ option.
b) be quick about it; the time to get from ‘Welcome’
to the end of the last main menu prompt should be less
than 30 secs.
c) use the everyday language
your callers use.
d) choose your categories
- Use as few levels as possible.
Research suggests a maximum of 3.
- Offer every chance to ‘zero-out’
(i.e. ‘Press zero to speak to a representative.’) Most
of the time, you don’t want users to do this, but a
recent survey showed that one third fo users ‘always’
zero-out, and one third zero-out ‘most of the time’.
Still more will get lost and/ or frustrated and need
help. It’s better to have them speak to an agent, than
to hang up and perhaps never call again. A well designed
IVR system will keep abandons to a bare minimum. And by
the way, under no circumstances should users have to
request to speak to a representative twice.
- Keep marketing out of IVR. Users have called you
with a goal in mind. They will only be receptive to
marketing once that goal has been satisfied.
- Always offer a way back to the previous menu or to
start again. Also, once in a hold queue, offer a way
back into IVR if they don’t want to wait.
- Test with real users before going live. Refine, and
try again. And again.
Customer antipathy toward IVR may be increased by the
fact that, whereas most service channels (e.g. Facebook,
SMS, voice) are chosen by the customer, IVR is forced upon
them whether they like it or not. If the customer has called
to speak to a human, IVR is just an obstacle – unwanted and
A note on Speech Recognition: recent studies show that
57% of users prefer to use a touch-tone keypad over SR to
enter data, citing apprehension about SR problems as the
main reason. (24% reported no preference, and only 19%
preferred speech input.) The challenge of handling
background noise and a variety of accents makes accuracy in
speech recognition tough, but it is improving rapidly.
Unfortunately, these improvements may take a while to filter
through to the public consciousness. In the meantime, early
negative experiences still dictate behaviour.
Bottom line: whatever your goals in utilising IVR -
minimising costs, routing to the best agent, taking payments
or simply providing information - make sure you are
designing a dream, not writing a nightmare.
P.S. Here is a real-life example for your amusement:
from an Australian recorded information line, set up to answer questions about the new Goods and Services tax plan -
If you understand English, press 1.
If you do not understand English, press 2.
the sytel blog
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