Saturday, March 15, 2008

Please Ask

In my last post, I said we should stop asking users so many questions, but sometimes we don't have information we really need to do what users want.

Case in point: I love voice dialing on my BlackBerry. I can make phone calls without looking at the screen. Voice dialing is one reason why I won't get an iPhone anytime soon. But, several times, my BlackBerry has called the wrong person. It's called Andrew and Andrea instead of Audrey, Dale instead of Neil, and Bernie instead of Roberta. In each case, the last names were different but began with the same syllable, so maybe that points to a flaw in their voice recognition algorithm.

But, you know what? I don't care about that -- I just want it to work. And I actually know why it fails. I have almost 400 people in my address book and the voice recognition is optimized for a far smaller number, with much less overlap between possible names. I don't want to take people out of my address book just to make the voice recognition work better -- I have people I email regularly but never call and vice versa. I don't call my kids' teachers and I almost never email my mom. I want them all in my address book and I don't want to have to omit information either.

I'm a technical guy, so I fixed it in a technical way -- I marked all the people I actually might want to call and I programmatically fixed all of the other people so that their phone numbers are in the Notes field instead of the Phone fields. Now, I can't call them by mistake, but I still have their phone numbers if I need them. But, yesterday, somebody who I hadn't talked to in a year called and, instead of their name, I just saw a ten-digit number. And the voice recognition can still get it wrong and then tell me there's no number for the person I wasn't planning to call anyway. That's not what I want either.

Until (and unless) the voice recognition gets a lot better, there ought to be a better solution. Let me mark the people that I might want to call (or not call). Or let me have two address books. Or take frequency into account. I've called my wife like a zillion times and I call her soundalikes rarely if ever. You'd think it would know that.

As I said, we shouldn't ask users questions that we know the answers to. Or that we have a better idea of what the right answer is than they do. Or that we can figure out based on watching their actions.

But, if certain information about the user can make a big difference in the quality of what we provide them (and we can't get it in other ways, such as observation), we should ask.