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A Voice That's a Little Bit You

Talking computer's more appealing when suited to user's personality, says study

THURSDAY, Oct. 11, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- When the computer speaks, you're more likely to listen and pay attention if the voice coming out of the box mirrors your own personality.

That's according to a new study just published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. The study has broad implications for Web merchants as well as telephone-based merchants who are increasingly turning to what is known as text-to-speech systems to respond automatically to customers or to reach Web users who have problems seeing or reading.

If you've ever heard one of these systems, you know that even among the best of them, the voices have inexplicable pauses, misplaced accents and generally sound like the speaker lives in a tin can. Nevertheless, prior research persuaded sociologists and psychologists at Stanford University that people attribute personality to these voices -- no matter how fake they sound.

They postulated that people who have an extroverted personality respond best to a "dominant" computer voice, while introverts prefer a "submissive" voice. To test this idea, researchers set up a mock online bookstore featuring a synthetic voice reading a book review. Then they gave brief personality tests to 72 "shoppers," identifying them as either introverts or extroverts. The computer voice doing the reading could do it as either an extrovert -- loud and fast -- or an introvert -- softer, slower and more tentative.

The study confirmed what the researchers suspected. When the voice personality doing the reading matched the personality of the shopper, the person was more likely to buy the book. Then the researchers took that a step further, asking shoppers what they thought about the quality of the book review. When the voice personality and the real personality jibed, the participant liked the book more, trusted the reviewer more and even found the reviewer smarter.

Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor of communication who was chief researcher on the study, says the lesson is clear: "Companies would be well advised to use a computerized voice that speaks to you in a way that matches your personality, because you'll trust them more and are more likely to carry out their suggestions."

So how does a company know what kind of personality an online or telephone customer has? Nass says there are ways to subtly gather that information. For instance, when registering customers on a site or introducing them to a telephone service, the initial questionnaire could include some basic personality differentiators. A travel site, for instance, could legitimately ask users questions like, "Do you prefer to visit quiet places or noisy ones?" And based on the answers, they could assess personality and assign the right synthetic voice.

Nass, who consults with a variety of Web-based companies, denies that it all sounds Machiavellian. "All advertising is about manipulation. It's just when you use computers that people are shocked and mortified. I'm not sure I understand why."

One of the companies that pays attention to what Nass has to say is SpeechWorks International Inc. SpeechWorks creates the synthetic message software that talks back to you. Their customers include most of the major airlines and major web merchants like America Online.

Blade Kottely, creative director of interface design, says creating voices that don't turn off customers is a high art. "People have a visceral reaction. When it works, people are pleased. They think they have dealt with an agent who wants to help them, is efficient and has their best interests at heart."

What To Do

Lucent Technologies is doing cutting-edge developmental work with text-to-speech. Try out some of their experimental technology here.

For information on using text-to-speech to help the disabled, go to ABLEDATA, a federally funded project whose main mission is to provide information on such technology and rehabilitation equipment.

And if you're curious to see how computer voices turn out in the future, bend your ear to these Star Trek sound bites.

SOURCES: Interviews with Clifford Nass, Ph.D., professor of communication, Stanford University; Blade Kottely, creative director of interface design, SpeechWorks International Inc.; American Psychological Association's September 2001 Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
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