Saturday, December 8, 2007

Ordering your IVR menu options

You might think that, after all these years, putting menu options in order in an IVR would be a solved problem. It's not. There are some general rules for ordering menus, like "order by frequency of use," and exceptions to the rules, like the "specific-to-general rule." However, the observed rules don't account for an important part of the IVR design, and that's the caller's needs for accomplishing tasks.

You have some top-of-flow menus in which the caller is offered several services. Main menu is always a top-of-flow menu. The order of options can influence what the caller selects, and you have some latitude in ordering those items. Let's consider a bottom-of-flow menu, like the presentation of a payment amount. In any pay-by-phone system the caller is given a payment amount and then offered the option to pay using the IVR. Since the company is taking money from a customer, they'll usually make it pretty easy to talk to a representative at this point. How do you order the menu options?

I noticed when I wrote the options for this menu that I followed an unnamed convention that I call psychological distance from the task. I've seen this done so often, and I do it so often, that I don't even give it much thought. In the pay by phone system, from the caller's perspective, they need to select an account to pay, get the payment amount, decide how much they want to pay, indicate their method of payment, pay some or all of the bill, and make sure the company understood their request. Then the caller continues with another task or set of tasks. Here's the ordering of this bottom-of-the flow menu: Repeat amount, Make payment, Main menu, Talk to agent.

How is this related to psychological distance from task? The options are, abstractly, Re-do this step, Go to next step, Leave this task, Leave the IVR. That maps pretty closely to decision the caller makes when presented with an amount. If a caller intends to pay a bill they have to be sure how much the bill is for. They are at the "get payment amount" step. They won't move to the next step until they have the amount. If they didn't hear the amount the only thing they are thinking about is hearing that amount again.

The ordering is also consistent with what the company prefers the caller to do--serve themselves using the IVR before asking for an agent. Some terminal state bottom-of-flow menus include the phrase, "if you're finished you may hang up." Where does that belong in the menu? Obviously, at the end, since it means Stop Contact with the company.

The missing piece in all of this, and the thing that makes ordering menus difficult sometimes, is knowing what the caller wants to do next. In the pay-by-phone example it's obvious. In many others it isn't so easy. The lack of a good task analysis and understanding of why people call leads to the disagreement over ordering menus and menu options. That's why "best practices" rules for ordering menus will never be enough.

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