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Reach out and touch someone
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by Geoff Hart
Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. Tech getting better at personalizing messages. Computerworld Canada, Mar. 9:12.
The hardest part of communication lies in the many options we have available, and how tricky it can be to pick the right option for each individual member of our audience. When we write something, whether in print or online, we try to produce something that satisfies as many readers as possible because we require a "one size fits all" solution: we're not physically present to tailor our approach to meet each individual’s needs, and so must meet a range of needs in a single document. With print, we’re stuck with static text: the text can't change until we rewrite it and distribute a new version. Moving information online makes it easier to revise and distribute information, but actually updating the information still requires a writer. Are there alternatives that make it easier to reach customers with our messages?
Many Web sites offer customization features, so that visitors can log on and load a profile that tells the site to display only those components they really want to see. This approach partially addresses the differing needs of our audience because, at a broad level, it lets visitors choose their own categories of content. But that only addresses the interface between visitors and information: it doesn't affect the information itself. We can resolve this problem to some extent by creating parallel summary and detailed information for visitors who want different levels of detail or by using database technology to let visitors dynamically generate their own information through database queries. But both approaches only repackage existing, static information, and do a poor job of mimicking the flexibility possible with human intervention.
Fortunately, there are several ways to provide that flexibility. E-mail is the most obvious, since it lets questioners choose just about any form and content for their questions, and permits the remarkable ingenuity and flexibility of a human response; the human factor helps ensure an appropriate style and content for the response. However, any given respondent may lack the knowledge required to respond, or may be unavailable while responding to other queries; thus, e-mail usually involves some degree of delay. Message boards, mailing lists, and discussion groups improve on an e-mail solution by permitting responses from many people, at least one of whom is likely to be immediately available. Chat systems take this approach to its logical extreme by removing the delay inherent in e-mail, since they provide immediate, interactive feedback—provided someone is available to chat. There's no substitute for this approach when the situation is complex enough to require the flexibility of a human mind and ongoing, immediate, responsive interaction until the visitor's need has been satisfied.
Unfortunately, all these approaches require human intervention, and that can be both expensive (staffing and training costs) and costly—if nobody is present to respond and an angered customer goes elsewhere. An ideal solution would combine the power of human interaction with an automated solution, and technology is close to providing that solution: the "virtual representative" (v-rep). V-rep software translates "natural language" queries written in normal English into terms the software understands, then translates the answers back into comprehensible English. The technology is imperfect, but surprisingly effective. Have a look at the solutions provided by OneToOne.co.uk ("Yasmin"), WeTheShoppers.com ("Aunt Ethel"), and Beauty.com ("Jordan") to see the state of the art in this technology. [A look back from 2005: Not a one of these sites was available when I checked whether it would be possible to link to them. Clearly, the technology was "not ready for prime time".—GH]
As anyone who's ever used a search engine or a site map knows, software often fails because of inadequate planning or immaturity of the technology, so you'll still need a variety of solutions that provide alternative means of satisfying customer needs. Never forget that with any of these approaches, technology must be the enabler, not the solution itself: you still need to work with your customers to understand the range of solutions they require and how to implement each solution effectively.
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