Friday, April 3, 2009

WTF? Public Behavior, Infernal Machines, and Voice Interaction/Interface Design

Recently one of the semi-annually popular questions in the voice interface world floated out of its storage closet and back into the email list shared by many speech designers: “What should our applications do when cursing by a caller is detected?” I thought about not responding this time, but realized that we hadn’t really publicly hashed out the argument for not doing anything too special. Plus, we always joke about having an app say something like “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” which has been said enough to worry me that maybe someone will take it seriously. So, I responded that trying to be sure of what sub-context is meant by the caller is very difficult and many times the use of vulgarity is in fact not a sign of trouble or frustration. It is more effective to focus our efforts on creating effective and pleasant interactions for the vast majority of callers who are not swearing out of frustration or at all. That’s what I posted to the list.

The response to that was the equivalent of crickets and instead other respondents focused, as before, on maybe doing this or that, all essentially variations on the theme of giving negative reinforcement to the caller or even punishing them, such as going silent for a while or transferring them to a low-priority wait queue. My thought on that is, as a colleague suggested, let’s figure out how to make mallets bop the caller on the head every time they swear.

The bottom line is that designs must accommodate and respond accommodatingly to a wide variety of social behaviors, some of which will differ greatly from the company’s and designer’s point of views and cultural biases. While an organization might understandably choose to have a strict policy regarding how their customers are allowed to treat employees, it is ridiculous to think of requiring similar behavior standards for actions around or even toward inanimate software. It is not wise or even practical to try to enforce ambiguous, dynamic, class- and culture-based behavior norms on people who are not asking for it and are often already upset or stressed by a situation they perceive as been caused by the company. Make no mistake, designers are in the behavior modification business. However, that is true only as far as required to achieve the person’s desired goal within the allowances of the company.

Be nice to the people using your application, but don’t get bothered if they aren’t nice back. Don’t try to change behavior that is not directly relevant to their success. Focus on getting to success.