Conversational interfaces are everywhere these days. Chatbots are said to be conversational. Virtual assistants are conversational. And now, interactive voice response systems, or IVRs, should also be conversational. But what does it mean? I have previously written a couple of posts regarding so-called conversational chatbots, and how misused the term “conversational” often is. I have also discussed how hard it is to build truly conversational interactions. Now, what does it mean in the context of an IVR?
In this post, I will first revisit what I consider essential criteria for a conversational interface, regardless of the channel or application. Next, I will describe the specificities of an IVR that should be taken into account, and how they differ from other interfaces. Finally, I will explore what it means to design conversational interactions in the context of an IVR.
Conversational Interface Requirements
One fundamental criterion that must be met for an interface to be called conversational is the possibility for the end user to be an active participant in the exchange; in other words, the user must be able to:
- Express their requests in their own words;
- Base their requests on their actual needs, not on what the application proposes (i.e. without the need of a menu or list of options);
- Include more information when answering a question than what the question specifies;
- Interrupt an ongoing task with an unrelated question, get an answer and resume the previous task (in other words, digress);
- Change their mind, e.g., correct of piece of information, go back, interrupt and cancel a task, etc.;
- Switch topics or tasks.
And the conversational interface must be able to:
- Understand the meaning and extract relevant information from free-form spoken or written utterances;
- Keep track of all the input provided by the user to ensure that the application never asks for information that was already provided;
- Consider context when interpreting the meaning of a user’s input;
- Handle digressions and resume tasks;
- Handle change and cancel requests.
This list is not exhaustive, but it provides a basis to determine whether a given interface or application is conversational or not. For instance, a DTMF IVR is not a conversational interface, nor is a speech enabled directed dialogue phone application. Other examples of user interfaces that are not conversational are one shot question-answer sequences such as “OK Google, what’s the weather forecast for today?”, or chatbots that only handle clicking or tapping as input mode.
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