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23 May 2011

What is more easy: to talk to a dumb or to an agile person?

Subtitle: The impact of cognitive load on the acceptance of new technologies

I love language technologies. Whenever I can, I try to use them, on the phone, on the web. On the phone, for example, when an automatic system (IVR) asks me for my phone number, I will always pronounce it. I will never key it using the phone’s keyboard. In our family, we were among the first to have a very well featured telephone at home. It contains most of the phone numbers we dial more than once in a nice directory. And sure, it allows for voice dialing.

However, each time my wife wanted to call her father, she keyed the 10 digit old family phone number manually. I made her aware of the nice features of our phone, that her father’s phone number was in the directory. She did not care, she still went through the 10 strokes on the small phone-keyboard to call her father. So I asked why: using the recorded address book, she would need to press only 3 or 4 keys. Or even better, speaking the name, she would have to press only one button. She said she was aware of all this …but she preferred to type in the whole number anyway.

Another day she was dialing her father and at the same time she was explaining to me what she wanted to ask her father. She was dialing and talking to me. I know, women are multi-tasking enabled and men aren’t. But so much multi-tasking? 

When I call her father … I use voice dialing.
OK , even my wife would not be able to talk to the phone AND to me simultaneously.

A few days later a friend, who is working as a physicist, explained to me one of the reasons why elderly persons recall much better what happened in their childhood compared to what they experienced a few days ago: The brain-energy needed to recall long term memory is much lower than the energy needed to access short term memory.

What a relief! I felt much better … at last, my wife is not so much more multi-tasking enabled than I am: Her dad´s phone number simply belongs to her long term memory. She needs nearly no “CPU” to dial it. I tried it with my mother´s phone number. It came out of my fingers, I had nothing to do!

When dialing with voice or with the address book, the brain is much more active: the information we get back from the phone and to which we need to react is always new, and often, the information we get back is surprising “did it really mix up Müller with Miller? I thought I did not have a Miller in my directory” … we need brain activity, we need much more CPU to handle it. 

In other words, the cognitive load for Voice Dialling is higher compared to the cognitive load for "finger" dialing.

Is this a specific problem to Voice Dialling?

Let’s take an example from the kitchen. Do you love a really good sauce hollandaise? I do...
For a good sauce hollandaise, you need the correct temperature (between 50°C and 60°C, never, never above 60°C!) and the right speed at which you pour the butter into the sauce (at the beginning very slowly, after 1-2 minutes you can be very quick). 

It’s not very difficult, but it needs some attention. And it tastes so much better than the ready-made sauce hollandaise you can buy in every supermarket.  And what people typically do? They buy the ready-made sauce. Their kitchen is the most expensive room in their house, they love cooking (see the increasing number of cooking shows on TV, 43 per week already in Germany!), they will complain against a bad dish in a restaurant ... but they will buy ready-made sauce hollandaise, even it if tastes less creamy and smooth than a handmade one.  

This is intrinsic to the human being. Quality sells only if it is a no-brainer. A human being will always prefer a “non-cognitive-loaded” solution, to a “cognitive-loaded” solution even if there is a difference in quality. Actually it is worse … if the user has the perception the new solution needs a higher cognitive load as the one he knows, the preference will go for the old habit. In other words, as soon as some cognitive-load is required, customers will seriously consider competitive methods with no-cognitive-load even if they achieve less good results.

Apply this to a voice dialing application. Because a speech recognizer does not have a 100% recognition rate, the customer, the speaker has to be ready to react to any mis-interpretation of the recognizer. The customer is anxious about something unpredictable coming soon. He still does not know when and how, but he knows it is coming. What he is quite sure of, is that his cognitive-load will jump one level higher at some point of the dialogue. If he knows a way to avoid this, he will go for it. He will choose for a competitive method requiring less cerebral activity. The other way round, deciding for a solution demanding a higher cognitive load will be considered only if the competitive methods are perceived more difficult, e.g. dialing while driving in the car.

Apply this to any voice application. It is obvious the cognitive-load required by the user grows with the number of voice interactions needed to go through the voice application. Add to this that, as soon as the customer experiences a surprise with the reaction of the system it is interacting with, its cognitive load jumps one level higher.
In general, the customer will prefer any alternative method with less cognitive load, even if the end-experience is less smooth.

Actually, this is not a surprise. We all know that speech but also written text is subject to various possible interpretations. Even between human beings.
  • If the person you are talking to is dumb, you have to be very precise and concise in your formulation: the whole cognitive load is on your side
  • If the person you are talking to is agile, you can expect a reaction from his side as soon as you are imprecise in your formulation: the cognitive load is shared between both of you.

The higher the cognitive load required to use your voice application, the lower its market reach.

So the big question is how to keep the cognitive load delivered by a voice application as low as possible … This is a combination of:

  • Addressing long term memory
  • Reducing the number of possible surprises
  • Streamlining
  • Thinking use case
  • Mastering processes within and across channels
  • And quite a bit more … in order to make the machine more intelligent or at least more comprehensive, more agile
Talk with us if you feel your customer communication needs to be improved:

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