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Preface

Preface

Speech-recognition technology increasingly is being used in a variety of over-the-phone applications in the transportation, financial, telecommunications, and other industries. Most people by now have experienced at least one automated phone system, where questions are posed by a computer to callers seeking help or information, and the callers' spoken answers are understood and acted on by that computer. In the best cases, the computer even sounds human!

Given the rapid emergence of these applications, the time seems right for a concise overview of the topic—a guide for business managers looking for new and better ways to engage and service their customers, a resource for designers getting started with voice applications (or refreshing their current knowledge), a good read for anyone interested in this exciting technology. Having built applications in many of these industries, I feel well-positioned, and eager, to explain important aspects of the art and business of speech recognition, and to illuminate the extraordinary returns a well-designed and well-deployed over-the-phone system can yield—increased revenues, lower costs, customer satisfaction and retention, and brand development. Speech-recognition technology can give a company an identifiable and welcome voice—a noble voice, even—and in this book I mean to show how.

The key to voice-application success, as I demonstrate in a variety of examples, is a well-constructed user interface—interactions between the system and its users that are both pleasing and effective. The best voice interfaces avoid the confusion or annoyance of touchtone systems and the expense of operators or customer representatives. A good voice interface, as the examples will illustrate, can solve critical business problems.

This book certainly is not meant to be exhaustive in its coverage of speech-recognition technology, or to be academically rigorous in its style. Other fine books delve more deeply and exclusively into particular elements of design, such as brainstorming techniques and usability testing principles. Rather, this book is the product of one experienced, business-focused practitioner—me—talking about what works in this domain, and what does not. I speak from the real-world perspective of a designer who has had to fight with deadlines, work around technological limitations, satisfy and excite the system's users, all while meeting contractual obligations to the client and financial expectations. (That experience will sound familiar to all practitioners!) From this perspective, I convey insights and advice about user-interface design, production, testing, and deployment that I hope will help others plan and build their own successful speech-recognition applications.

Readers familiar with other software development processes will see some similarities between the design of systems for over-the-phone speech-recognition systems and the design of systems for other media. This book, however, focuses on that which is unique to designing speech-recognition systems. It is important for client companies and designers alike to understand these unique elements in order to produce a system that works optimally for both the client company and its calling population.

To keep the book's focus on more fundamental design concepts, I have chosen not to discuss specific technologies, algorithms, or programming methodologies that may be popular at the moment, but that likely will change with each passing year, or perhaps even soon become obsolete. Thus, I do not cover VoiceXML, SSML, and certain proprietary software packages currently in use; although important and popular today, these changing standards are less central for understanding the basic principles.

There are two principal audiences for this book.

  • People who want to be effective speech-recognition user-interface designers

  • People who want to understand or profit from these systems

Prospective designers should find all chapters of the book useful. Other readers—particularly call center managers, programmers/implementers, and project managers—are likely to benefit most from the chapters that address the design and deployment process, and the ideas that drive the process (Chapters 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10).

After you've read this book, you will have a fundamental understanding of what goes into the design, production, testing, and deployment of over-the-phone speech-recognition applications. You'll have learned design guidelines, tips, and techniques that help ensure an application will work well and that people will enjoy using it. Inasmuch as examples are often the best way to learn, you'll have seen how other designers have dealt with real-life issues to solve real business problems. By addressing the main principles behind the creation of speech-recognition systems, I hope to have shown you the tight connection between the process of solving business problems using speech-recognition technology and the art of designing those systems.

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