Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems

This inaugural post in the category of “Bad: Problematic Designs” concerns a technology known as Interactive Voice Response (IVR). The core idea of IVRs is a set of verbal menus that are navigated by the caller in a variety of ways. The most inocuous instantiation of this technology simply guides the user through choices, allowing the user to “say or press” a certain number. The main complaint is the overarching idea that one must navigate through a hierarchical tree of perhaps several dozen total options before talking to a person. In some situations you simply can’t get to a person at all, so if the automated option doesn’t exist, you’re hosed.

From a high-level view, these systems beg the question — just what value-add is coming from all that navigation? Are there really 27 people standing by, one for each leaf node in the tree of options? Does it ultimately dump the caller to the same pool of operators, but with a note to that particular operator concerning your ultimate quest? (“I seek the holy grail…”) Or is it just cathartic for you as a caller to really think through your motives before deigning to bother one of their operators?

Granting the premise that forcing the caller to traverse the tree adds some value (to the caller) that compensates for the time required to do it, there is a distinct advantage to the “press or say [number]” option — mainly the cell-phone-while-driving scenario. If I can drive while menu navigating, it’s far less hazardous to say “five” than press it. (The relative merits of talking on a cell phone while driving is clearly a topic for another day.)

So I think I’ve become habituated to this rudimentary approach to IVRs, so long as I can 1) get to a person 2) within a reasonable traversal depth in the tree 3) in a reasonable amount of time. But lately the approach has seemed to shift. One automated system I call regularly no longer gives me menu choices with the “say or press [number]” option. Now it says things like, “If you would like to check your balance, say ‘Check balance,’” etc. I figured out quickly that if you just track these options numerically, you can just press the corresponding number on the keypad. So if the first option was to say “Check balance,” you can just press ’1′ instead.

Now a pause for psychological introspection by your host… Why does this bother me enough to hack the system until I understand how to press numbers instead of say phrases? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have an inherent distrust of technology, especially when it begins to get uppity. Maybe it’s because I have had such pitiful experiences with voice recognition software in the past. Maybe it’s because I know that I’m interacting with a computer, and I’d like to do that on fundamentally low-level terms. Maybe it’s because I’m really irritated by the excessively chipper automated voice saying, “Okay!! Let’s get the balance for you, big boy!!” (Frighteningly reminiscent of Eddy, the shipboard computer from Serius Cybernetics Corporation in the original BBC radio programs of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) I’m just looking for an account balance in the most efficient manner possible and I don’t want to emotionally bond with a voice recognition system!

Today I hit an all-time low (or high as the case may be). The MP3 file posted here is an actual recording of my conversation with an IVR protecting the front gates of one of our government agencies. Amazingly, when I actually got to the operator, he was remarkably personable and helpful. Perhaps it was only in comparison to the pseudo-personality I had to wade through in order to get to him.

Today’s lunch discussion of this experience with my Ph.D. student Dan Delorey (aided and abetted by the nearly intoxicating influence of a fire grilled chicken salad from Cafe Rio in Provo, Utah) has given rise to two new, but related, ideas, soon to be launched in this space.
1) Tell your troubles to the IVR. Fine, mister uppity-human-wannabe computer! You wanna talk? Let’s talk!
2) IVR Wars. Let’s get some of these systems talking to each other if they’re so smart. Let’s see if Sears can get some answers from Delta Airlines. We don’t know yet what the criteria will be for victory… The first one to get a human on the line? The last one?! The first one to hang up? We’ll have to think through this a bit.

Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

The first time I tried on a pair of Bose Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones, I was on a cross-country flight with one of my graduate students, David Vawdrey. He had just acquired a pair for himself, and was so excited by the experience that he insisted on giving me a live demo in-flight. Turns out that 35,000 feet at the rear of a wide-body jet is the place to fully appreciate these things!


These headphones are noise canceling, not sound canceling, so you can still hear announcements, and most of the time carry on conversation, but the most annoying aspects of normal cabin noise more or less vanish. This is a case of genius on two levels. First of all, someone had to think of the fact that business travelers would kill for really nice, high quality noise canceling headphones. Second, someone had to actually pull off the technology of noise canceling headphones and package them in a great form factor. Mission accomplished.


Now a bit of personal bias. I have significant hearing loss in both ears, and I tend to hear most sounds somewhat poorly, especially midrange sounds where conversations take place. But a weird side effect of my hearing condition is that there are some sound frequencies that I actually hear more acutely than most people. Naturally these are high, shrill pitches, just like… um… the ones that pound you incessantly on airplanes!

Prior to this point in my life I had done a ton of business travel, and my experience with airplanes was that I had two options: 1) Use earplugs. Several problems. If you jam them in far enough to really block the sound, you arrive at your destination with a sore ear canal. When they’re in, you can’t hear the flight attendant when it’s time to select your meal, and you can’t carry on normal conversations with your travel companions. Of course, that can be a blessing or a curse, but that’s another topic. Finally you’re stuck if you want to watch the in-flight movie. 2) Do nothing and arrive at your destination with a throbbing headache. I had played it both ways, and neither was fully satisfying. But I generally erred toward the earplugs as the lesser of two evils.

That brings us to the cross-country flight in which David put the headphones on me, asked me if I was ready, and then threw the switch. Absolutely amazing. Seemed like 80-90% or more of the ambient noise (especially the most irritating frequencies) just vanished. Regular sound was reduced, but still audible. Plus the headphones were incredibly comfortable. From that moment my only question was how I would beg, borrow or steal a pair for myself. By my next trip, I had managed to acquire my own pair, and air travel has never been the same since.

Now, the second brilliant aspect: they double as super high quality music headphones. So take yourself back to the last time you tried to watch a movie on an airplane with the sound system on the plane (especially the now-antiquated air-driven headphones). In order to get past the background noise, you wind up cranking the volume, pounding your ear drums, and contributing to the arrival headache, not to mention contributing to permanent hearing loss. The Bose headphones simultaneously cut the background noise and provide an amazingly clear sound, so you can listen to the movie, the music or whatever, at normal volume. Just amazing.

Last touch of class: inside the case is a business card slot containing a set of courtesy cards. On the back, the card reads, “Our customers tell us they are often asked about their Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones. For your convenience, we are providing this handy courtesy card for you to pass along.” Contact information follows. That’s confidence! And yes, I’ve given them out on airplanes…

Retail Price: $299.00. Worth every cent.

First pitiful design example: Door-mounted video rack

What follows is the experience that originally inspired the creation of the Good, Bad, and Ugly Design forum. The story is absolutely factual.

Picture if you will the following homeowner quandary: Lots of old videocassettes and no convenient place to put them. My wife suggests that surely someone has a rack that could hang on a closet door. Quick Google search. Bingo. Yes of course, you can buy them online. So we went shopping, followed by a naïve purchase, based on the assumption that something sold to hold videos while hanging on the back of a closet door would tend to function in such a way.

Wrong in this case.

The device is simple enough, as you can imagine. Installation consisted of taking it out of the box and hanging it on the closet door. First problematic observation was that the sides of each rack were open so that the video on both ends of each shelf was about half on the shelf and half hanging into space. Each time the door opened and closed, there was a non-zero chance that one or more videos would slip out the side of one shelf or the other and plummet to the carpet. Trouble enough, but amazingly enough, not the big problem.


My wife installed the thing on the door (as I said, by hanging it there) and began to put videos onto it. Her bad. The rack had multiple shelves, and probably held maybe 100 videos (approximately the size of our pile). By the time my wife was filling the last shelf row with videocassettes, the most fundamental design flaw was revealed.

The brackets holding this thing on the top of the door were made of soft metal, sort of a soft aluminum (harder than a pop can, but weaker than a tin can, albeit thicker). What were the designers thinking? Obviously they weren’t thinking that if someone hangs this thing on a door and puts a video in each spot designed to hold one, that before the entire shelf was full, the weight of the videos would cause the brackets to simply flex and bend, and that the entire contraption, including maybe 30 pounds of video cassettes would come crashing to the floor in a heap. I could understand it if we had taken something entirely out of its designed function (such as our ill-fated adventure at housing a hamster in a bird cage) and tried to put videocassettes into it. But this device was designed to hold precisely as many videos as she placed onto it, but was not simultaneously designed to actually remain on a closet door afterward.

Tuition cost: $39.99 for the rack, $7.95 for shipping, $39.99 refunded, another $7.00 to ship it back, lost time to clean up videos, vent our spleens, repackage and ship back.
Net loss: $14.95 for a product that was never designed to work in the first place.

Epilogue: The company that sold us the “Over-the-Door Rack – Video” apparently no longer sells such a device, functional or not. The device in question can be purchased, but you won’t find it mentioned as a “video rack.” Poor design? Overzealous marketing? We may never know.

A little more on design

Design is spiritual or conceptual creation prior to physical instantiation. A creator/engineer/designer thinks through things up front, then applies tools and methods in an attempt to conceptualize a particular thing (object, product, system, process) to achieve some purpose (whatever it might be). I suppose the measure of success for a designer lies in the degree to which that design meets the set of desirable objectives, and fails conversely.

Why does it seem so tough sometimes? I’m continually stunned at what I’ve come to refer to as “products that were obviously not designed to do the thing they were designed for,” or alternatively, “products that were never designed to work a single time.” Seems like I’ve been coming across these in spades the past few years—stuff that fails right out of the box.

In fairness, failures are easier to write about, in part because they’re generally more obvious. That’s probably because spectacular failures generally create significant inconvenience that tends to get our attention. Spectacular successes sometimes fly under the radar because it’s just the way it’s supposed to work. In addition, things that have been around for a while that really are spectacular (and amazing that they can even function at all) are often simply a backdrop. For example, I have some significant nits associated with air travel, but of course that’s against a backdrop of air travel, which is itself a pretty amazing and spectacularly successful thing.

So I guess I need to qualify things a bit. For my purposes, successes to be included here are those that are truly spectacular, whether large or small, and which represent some advance in art, science or practice. Often they represent an almost amazingly obvious but small improvement. For example, for a period of about 10 years, my wife and I hauled around a constant stream of newborn infants in carriers that forced you to cock your arm at an unnatural angle. That’s because the handle was always perpendicular to the baby and hence perpendicular to the direction a father faces while carrying a baby carrier. So who was the genius who realized that you could put two 90 degree jogs in the handle, creating a relatively small stretch of handle parallel to the baby and thus permit you to haul your infant with your arm in a natural position?! I don’t know, but whoever it is should be knighted. Pure genius. Amazingly, while I hauled kids around like that for 10 years, it never dawned on me to think about that change in design. That’s the thing about brilliant design. It often looks like a very small step that is huge, but apparently non-obvious until done, and then entirely obvious afterward. Those are the successes.

The failures tend to jump out obviously enough and it’s somewhat natural to dwell on the negative. But I’m not looking at garden variety failures, like when things wear out before they ought to, or something went wrong in manufacturing. I’m looking at egregious failures in which the whole thing was really never designed to work in the first place—products essentially doomed long before they were ever manufactured.

I’m also curious about common threads, and I’m confident that some will emerge, but I believe that they all share the common attribute that the designers did not consider fundamental and essential scenarios of usage. We’ll have to see as the observational pool grows over time.

The “Good, Bad and Ugly Design” Forum

Teddy Roosevelt said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” (The Strenuous Life)

I guess the bulk of our lives is spent in a sort of gray twilight in which the same things happen in approximately the same way, over and over again. But then there are those notable moments when we encounter something truly memorable. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s just downright ugly. But these are the highlights of our lives, for better or worse.

The purpose of this forum is to capture those stunning design moments that bless us, curse us, or just amuse the heck out of us on a daily basis.