Interesting Failures - Visual IVRs

by @edent | , | 2 comments

Another in an occasional series of blog posts where I discuss products I've worked on which failed.

It was the early 2000s and the large mobile telco I worked for had just spent billions of pounds on a 3G license.

3G was the future! Sure, faster data would be nice, but the real money was to be made in Video Calling!

What could Video Calling be used to improve? The answer was obvious - Interactive Voice Response menus. You know the sort "Press 1 for billing, press 2 for accounts, press 3 to bang your head against a brick wall."

It's annoying to listen to a robot read out 9 different items. And then another 6. And then 12 more. Wouldn't it be easier if you could see what all the options were? Yes! YES!


We built it, tested it, demo'd it, and then quickly abandoned it.

Here's all the ways it failed:

  • Early 3G phones didn't have touch screens. People would see the menu item in the video and try to press the screen, rather than the phone's telephone buttons.
  • The phone's screens were small and low resolution - it was hard to fit more than 3 menu items on screen at any one time.
  • Video resolution and bandwidth was limited. You can recognise a friend's face over a poor connection, but recognising low-resolution text is much harder.
  • It was expensive for users - video calls were a premium product. These were the days when SMS cost 12p a go - so it was, I think, 50p a minute.
  • It was expensive for companies - not only to integrate with their existing IVRs, but there was a licence fee to pay and per minute charges.

It was a flop.

A few years later we tried again - using a new-fangled technology called "apps". This app would detect that you were calling our helpdesk, pause your call, and take you through a series of questions to help you either fix your phone or get you to the correct department.

Customers hated it. I've never seen a focus group react so negatively before.

They hated being interrupted. They resented a machine questioning their choices. They despised being interrogated about why they were calling.

So we killed that idea as well.

Would it work today? I've been thinking about that. People are more comfortable with video-calling, and the prices have cratered. Phones are bigger and touch-screens are moderately popular with the masses.

But I still think it would fail today.

The mental model of shifting between voice and video seems hard for many people. There a more fundamental barrier. Generally, people only ever ring if something has gone wrong - so the customer is already stressed. They want a human and humane response. For many people, prodding on a screen is not a calming experience.

2 thoughts on “Interesting Failures - Visual IVRs

  1. Benjamin Nickolls says:

    possible exception: visual voicemail. For me it was a game-changer with the introduction of the iPhone. I actually used voicemail for the first time in my life. With the (lamentable) move from ‘unlimited’ 3G internet at O2 I moved to Three with the promise that ‘support for visual voicemail was coming’… 10 years later…

  2. mike says:

    Navigating the "press 1 for billing" menus on a smartphone does involve prodding on a screen. 😀

    I don't think there's anything more human and humane about "press 1 for billing" than selecting options on a screen. The "press 1 for billing" things often have multiple levels to negotiate before you get to talk to a human. Selecting options on a screen seems less annoying because they're all there for you to look at and choose from in your own time, you don't have to listen whilst someone reads out a load of options that aren't what you want, or think "was it actually the option before last I wanted?" or "great, my two year old shouted and I missed what that option was" or "how do I make it tell me the options again without waiting for it to eventually finish reading them all out?". But I agree a set up which involves you dialling a number, then selecting from options that appear on a screen would fail. And it wouldn't be usable by a huge number of people anyway.

    An app which lets you navigate a visual equivalent of "press 1 for billing" and then initiates a phone call that connects you to the relevant department might be somewhat successful. But simply publishing a list of phone numbers for each department on the website would work for a lot more people and be vastly cheaper.

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