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Calling an 800 number and getting an automated voice can be frustrating. But more and more these machines are sounding like real people. Now, many companies are trying to make new automated voice systems more palatable. Katherine Wells has the story.


Automated voice systems use futuristic speech recognition technology and pleasant 'personas' to soothe frustrated callers. Voices like this one from Assurant Health are designed to think and react like real people. For example:

Voice: "You can explain what you want just as though you were talking to a real person."

Older systems frustrated consumers by asking them to repeat information constantly, but new systems understand a wider range of responses. Here’s the old system:

Voice: "Sorry, I didn't understand."

Compared to the new:

Voice: "There ya are, I gotcha."

And the new systems are friendlier, too. Interactions Technology is a leading designer of this kind of technology. This is what you might hear if you called a pizza place using one of their automated systems.

Voice: "Sure, I can help you order some fresh, hot pizza."

According to Interactions, this kind of enthusiasm and informality—fake typing sounds included—is getting an overwhelming response from consumers. Many even thank the automated voice for his courteous service.

Female Voice: "You're the best automated guy ever!"

Male Voice: "Man, you've been alright dog. Thank you!"

Third Voice:"You're amazing!"

But some consumers find the ever-increasing informality of computer voice systems to be, well, weird.

"I'm sitting here laughing at myself. The whole time I'm going 'This is stupid!'" Ben Fry says.

Fry is a former customer service representative and a blogger who’s written about his disconcerting experiences with automated systems. He says he feels stupid because he’s friendly to the voice on the other end of the line even though he knows it’s a recording.

"I felt like an idiot because he's not a real person and I told him to have a nice day. I could have told him to jump off a building and it wouldn't have hurt his feelings whatsoever, but for some reason I still told this computer to have a nice day," Fry says.

Some industry analysts call this reaction “the creepiness factor.” Walt Tetschner is a consumer advocate on GetHuman2.com. He says it’s patronizing for companies to assume callers will forget they’re talking to a machine, and that savvy consumers don’t like being talked down to.

"You're really trying to fool me, and I'm not that stupid. And that's basic human nature. Even though they don't say that, no one likes to think they're being fooled," Tetschner says.

This consumer backlash has caused some companies to change their systems back to a machine-like voice. Bruce Balentine is a researcher and principle for the Enterprise Integration Group. He says these overly friendly voices are part of what he calls “Jetsonian thinking.” Remember the old Jetsons cartoon? Where all they had to do was push a button and a hot meal or space car or robot maid would appear? Balentine says automated system designers think that consumers want this Jetsonian life. That they want everything done for them.

"It was a wonderful futuristic vision of a model of American consumerism that's based on the assumption that consumers are stupid and lazy," Balentine says.

But consumers aren’t lazy, Balentine says. In fact, they don’t even mind talking to a machine that sounds like, a machine. All they really want is a quick, efficient interaction.

"The goal is to make the user experience more appealing so that the machine will be more conversational. It turnout that end users don't care for that. What end users prefer is a machine that's easier to operate," Balentine says.

So Balentine urges system designers to steer far away from the casual tones and friendly musings of automated personas.

With the economic crisis forcing more people to do more for themselves, the development of new technologies like automated language systems may slow down anyway. Balentine says the Jetsonian philosophy is on its way out. He adds that as consumer complaints rise, we’ll see less bad imitations of humans and more good machines. So you’ll be able to save the enthusiastic compliments for a real live person.

For Intern Edition, I'm Katherine Wells.


© NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008