Stress, design, and the mother of necessity: Why a Band-Aid approach won’t cut it

Daily hassles and stress-inducing situations such as a traffic jam or meeting a deadline are microstressors that people deal with on a daily basis. Nuance believes poor design in a customer experience environment can be a microstressor like any other, causing unnecessary anxiety, health implications, and a poor experience. There are a variety of variables that create stress for customers, and ways language technology can help alleviate that stress to provide a more enjoyable service experience.
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Poor customer experience design is a microstressor like any other, so in order to alleviate customer stress, companies need to focus on creating a user-friendly experience.

You’re under a tight deadline. “Shake It Off” is stuck in your head and driving you nuts. You’re caught in a traffic jam. Psychologists often write about ‘microstressors’ like these that occur in daily life. One could add to this list a host of technology-based microstressors such as a website that doesn’t include the feature you want or an Interactive Voice Response system (IVR) that doesn’t pass your information along to an agent. More than major life events like divorce or the death of a loved one, these microstressors are highly correlated with ailments like depression and heart disease (Kanner et al., 1981; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). It is the belief of Nuance that a negative user experience that comes from poor design decisions is a microstressor like any other, and our designers have the opportunity to help minimize the stress that comes from bad user experience.

If you look at the field of psychology, and the larger field of healthcare for that matter, a lot of effort is made to address problems after they have already happened. Clinical psychologists and social workers spend most of their time helping clients cope with the stress that has taken hold earlier in their lives. With the understanding that this is an expensive and difficult proposition, a field known as community psychology arose which focuses on decreasing the causes of stress in the environment rather than helping people cope with existing stress. That should be the goal of every designer. While others focus on applying a Band-Aid to a wound, we are making sure the wound never occurs.

This is all well and good, but a tension often arises at this point. Companies who sell technologies and services may be inclined to sell them to as many people as possible. The right technology can decrease stress, but the wrong one can increase it. As designers in customer care – and this goes more generally for any one in professional services – we need to apply technologies only where they make sense. In an article for the New York Times (and in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel), Jared Diamond once said that “invention is the mother of necessity.” People often put new technologies to use just because they exist, not because a good fit has been identified. Diamond gives the example of Thomas Edison, who created the record player and had no idea what its purpose should be. “…so [Edison] drew up a list of 10 uses, like recording the last words of dying people, announcing the time and teaching spelling. When entrepreneurs used his invention to play music, Edison thought it was a debasement of his idea.” It is understandable to look for a best fit when a technology is brand new. But once a technology has had some time, companies need to be open and honest with their customers about when a technology makes sense to sell.

So when should you use various language technologies for customer care? The simplest answer is: You should use them when they bring the customer experience as close to non-existent as possible because that is the least stressful customer experience. Any customer interaction should be as brief as is possible and each necessary step should be as clear as possible.

I created a list of variables that affect stress for customers who require service from an organization. I then vetted this list with other designers within Nuance. When applied properly, we believe language technologies have the potential to positively improve the middle two columns.

Table 1: Variables that affect customer stress

9.25_Stress, design Image

For example, Vocal Password, which allows people to authenticate using their unique “voice print,” has the potential to make the authentication step of an interaction much easier (third column, second bullet) because the person does not need to hunt down information like account numbers or PIN’s. Vocal Password also potentially avoids a dead end in the interaction for the same reasons (same column, last bullet). But at the same time, if improperly applied, Vocal Password could increase stress: If you know your customers will be interacting with you from an extremely noisy environment, then Vocal Password may not function properly [1]. Not to sound like one of those ads for medications, but be sure to consult your vendor’s professional services team before using voice biometrics – or any other language technology.

As one more example, Visual IVR (VIVR) provides customers with visual support during an IVR interaction. For example, imagine how much easier it would be to pick a seat on an airplane via IVR if you could look at a map of the airplane. VIVR provides the opportunity to lower customer stress by providing them with the optimal modalities to get the job done (see Table 1, second column, first bullet). However, the technology needs to be implemented correctly or else it can feel like being passed across channels (see Table 1, second column, third bullet). The steps the customer must take to bring up an image on their phone must also be done carefully or else we risk increasing stress by adding steps in the task (see Table 1, third column, first bullet).

Applying these new technologies incorrectly has the potential to introduce microstressors into the world, which is the last thing we should want as designers, vendors, and customers. Applied correctly and we make the world a better place. Now if we could only find a way to get songs unstuck from people’s heads, and fly around those morning traffic jams.



[1] That being written, we did work with a digital service provider to let their technicians call into an IVR and authenticate using Vocal Password. The noisy environment did not interfere, possibly because the training data was collected in an equally noisy environment. Again, be sure to consult a speech scientist before proceeding.

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Jonathan Bloom

About Jonathan Bloom

Jonathan Bloom is a senior user interface manager for Nuance’s Enterprise Division. He joined Nuance's team in 1999 as part of Dragon Systems where he was the company's first usability engineer. He has designed both graphic and speech interfaces for IVR’s, dictation software, automotive, and mobile applications. Jon took a detour for some time to work for a startup called SpeechCycle (now part of Synchronoss) where he contributed to the creation of an infrastructure for generating completely data-driven user interfaces. He lives in New Jersey and works out of Nuance's New York office. In addition to managing a team of senior designers, Jon also sits on Nuance’s Innovation Steering Committee and continues to design on his own projects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the New School Graduate Faculty. Jon is also a husband, father of two, self-published fiction author with a black belt in Isshinryu karate.