Sunday, November 30, 2008

Can bad bosses kill?

Some time ago I remarked on the fine book The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton. Sutton's thesis is that allowing aggressive, uncivil behavior by so-called "top performers" hurts a company's bottom line in the long term. His thesis has more support now, based on a study by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. This article in the Boston Globe says that the Swedish researchers discovered that people who report to bad bosses (assholes, using Sutton's term) are at increased risk for heart disease.

Interesting story. I'd also be interested in seeing research that explains why companies allow bosses and "top performers" to abuse co-workers and subordinates. Perhaps if we understood why the behavior was allowed to occur - and even rewarded - it would be possible to design effective interventions.

In the meantime, I'll give Scott Adams the last word on bad bosses. I find this strip hysterically funny because it happened to me. The name of the book the manager tried to give me was Crucial Conversations.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Burned by the human factor again

Interesting observation by the New York Times on the financial crisis. Fields like finance and economics are the domain of the "quants," the people who build mathematical models of market behavior. However, the models are only good as the assumptions that underlie them, and managers' abilities to see what the models can and can't do. The models aren't reality, despite the economists trying to sell them as such.

The hardest part to understand in any complex system where human behavior plays a part is the human. And that's the part that's invariably over simplified in finance and economics. There's very little "human factor" in economics, except perhaps in the sub-field of behavioral economics.

As a voice user interface designer, I see it all the time. Project teams spend a great deal of time on the technology itself, because the technology is pretty difficult to implement. Unfortunately, the behavior of customers and callers and customer service reps is often given short shrift. That's too bad, because that's the really hard part to understand, and the success of an implementation is dependent on understanding and designing to accomodate the human part of the system.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Google voice search

Google's voice search capability is available on the iPhone. Based on this review, it appears to work well. "Works well" could mean a number of things, though. It could mean "the recognizer works well" or "it finds a lot of interesting stuff" or "it helps me do things I really need to do." The last criterion is really the important one. It's the thing that will draw people to use the service frequently, and perhaps generate revenue.

Readers' reactions to the app is really interesting. Most of the reactions are pretty positive, but a few people registered complaints. If you work with speech reco technology you know that the underlying language model is based on North American English. You realize that it doesn't work as well with people who are sick with colds. But the readers didn't cut the app any slack for those things, and that's important to remember for people who are delivering speech apps. Users' expectations are already pretty high for speech reco, and this will make it even higher.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gmail voice and video

Sometimes Google thinks big by thinking small. It has added video and voice chat to Gmail. Very cool. It's just another way to stay in touch with friends. It's also a compelling reason for people to insist that their friends get a Gmail account if they don't already have one. This feature, when used with Google docs, even gives people a very inexpensive video conferencing system.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lessons Learned: Don't ask for the moon

Listening to recorded answers to IVR prompts is a necessary part of tuning a speech IVR application for the purpose of improving recognition performance. It also sometimes reveals what people think about the IVR. Here's a verbatim quote taken from a tuning exercise.

"Oh you gotta be kidding me how the hell am I supposed to know that?"

The IVR had prompted the caller for the last four digits of the credit card number that was used to set up and pay for a service. The service may have been set up as long as a year previously, and many customers have more than one credit card. The question of how the hell the customer was supposed to know that had at least occurred to the IVR designer of this application. There were extra steps placed in the IVR to mitigate this scenario, but none were very effective. Lesson learned: ask for things that you know are easily available to the caller, or prepare them in advance for unusual requests that take time to track down.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Demo: "Please listen carefully..."

"Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed." I've complained about this useless little IVR nugget before. The IVR script writer believes that misroutes are solely caused by callers' inattention to the recorded prompt - certainly not because the menu options are confusing or misleading.

The phrase is really annoying. Some brilliant individual created a working demo that makes that point far better than I can in writing on my blog. Call 888-583-2801 and enjoy. Thank you Brad Lehman for the pointer.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Digression: Voting in Durham County, NC

Walked right in, no lines, no waiting to vote in Durham today. When I tried to vote on Sunday I couldn't even get into the parking lot!

If you haven't voted yet, there's no better time than now. Go!