Planning any type of automated customer communication can be tricky, but in the voice channel it’s uniquely tough. To start delivering natural, satisfying experiences through an IVR, designers are tasked with mechanising a very non-mechanical process: human conversation.

[IVR]: Hello, what are you calling about?

[Caller]: I want to cancel my flight

[IVR]: Sorry that was an invalid response. Please try again. Please say the departure date for the flight you would like to book – for example; the 14th of January.

Hardly sounds very natural, does it? Turning a conversation into a mechanised process is no simple task. The reality of human conversation is that it doesn’t flow in a logical, linear direction from A to B. People misunderstand or mishear things, ask for clarification, and re-phrase things to make themselves better understood.

Spoken words are transient, too: there’s no way to look back over a voice conversation and see what’s just been said. If a caller doesn’t understand something, repeating it in exactly the same way just prolongs a frustrating experience and underscores the fact they are talking to a machine; something that makes people highly uncomfortable. Worse, some IVRs give callers the sense that they are somehow to blame for not understanding – never a quick route to customer happiness!

Unfortunately, most IVR design environments are focused on call flow above all else – and when linear, mechanical call flows are designed by business analysts looking to meet business goals, the art of conversation is lost.

Designing a conversational IVR experience

Listening to customers and getting a proper Voice User Interface (VUI) designer to design the IVR is a great first step (see our recent blog post [link to principle blog post #1]). But designing an IVR that feels like a real conversation needs a design approach that accommodates a host of considerations, including:

Persona: Your persona is what callers hear when they pick up the phone. The persona is more than just a voice; he or she is a character who engages your callers and embodies the brand values of your organisation. To get the best results, the persona should be played by a trained voice actor.

Prosody: Does the persona sound genuine and empathetic? Do they talk in a natural way? Do they pronounce things – phone numbers, for example – in the way the customer expects? Is it all clear and easy to understand? In short, does the interaction feel like a conversation with a human being?

Collaboration: Real-life conversations are co-operative, with both parties collaborating to arrive at a clear understanding. If the system doesn’t understand what a caller said, does it help move things forward in an easy, natural way – or does the IVR just repeat the same thing before dismissing them?

Practice makes perfect

When designing a natural IVR flow that takes these considerations into account, it helps to write it at first like a screenplay, with dialogue, rather than just drawing a logical call flow with boxes and arrows.

If you wouldn’t do it in a face-to-face conversation, there is no room for it in your IVR. This means identifying where things such as repetition, long pauses, insensitive responses or talking in circles can occur and eliminating them at the planning stage.

Written language and conversational language are two very different beasts. If words and phrases such as “do not” instead of “don’t” make it onto your IVR persona scripts, the final experience is going to sound strangely robotic and inhuman.

Your end goal is to arrive at a mapped conversation that’s always moving forward—while enabling the customer to guide it as they require. Your customer should feel in charge of the conversation.

The best way to know if your IVR sounds truly conversational is to try it out on another human being, or preferably, a small group of different human beings. Test your design with a group of real callers at every stage, and refine based on their feedback – and you’ll end up with an IVR that you know sounds and feels natural.

Key Takeaways

Voice doesn’t play by the same rules as other communication channels. Humans converse instinctively, and if you can present a customer with an IVR that speaks to them the same way another person would, they’ll engage with it immediately.

Run through your proposed conversation live, refine it until every choice and transition flows naturally, and flow that polished conversation into your IVR.

Find out more in our eBook

Keeping your IVR updated is just one of nine design and deployment principles we use for delivering great IVR experiences. To read about all nine, fill out the form below to download our eBook: Press 1 To Be Delighted: How to Design, Develop and Deploy a Truly Customer-Centric IVR.

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Topics: IVR Design