800-GOOG-411 (466-4411)

Update (4/11/07): Two Tellme executives head for Y!.

It’s been a Google kind of week here. Google Labs has just released their much-anticipated and long-speculated speech-enabled free 411 service. This comes on the heels of Tellme’s recent Business Search beta, offered behind their 800-555-TELL (8355) service.

Some early and incomplete observations:

  • Tellme’s Business Search is very. . . well. . . Tellme, including the usual navigational audio clicks and swooshes to mark list items and returning to the beginning, as well as transitional music and service announcements. These things when not used judiciously tend to slow down the call unnecessarily and also betray Tellme’s entertainment industry pedigree.
  • Google’s service has tell-tale old school Nuance VUI elements for things like error handling, contextual help, and offering options like “details” just before the call is transferred.
  • Unlike Tellme, the Google app appears to be music-free and lacks earcons , although they do play a humorous “thinking” sound no doubt mocking the typical cue for system processing. This is in keeping with Google’s overall stripped down approach to interface design.
  • Tellme entertains and then optionally texts you a listing but does not connect the call (yet). Google connects you (and optionally texts if that is preferred). Which do you think is the better experience?
  • Google has an interesting back-off strategy and allows callers to enter requests using their dial pad. This is a nice feature for noisy environments or simply when speech recognition is having a tough go of it
  • Google’s text-to-speech sounds signficantly better to these ears, although this improvement creates another interesting challenge. The synthesized speech at times is almost too close but not close enough to recorded human speech, evoking an uncanny valley experience. It’s creepy at times.

Overall, I’d say the services do a fairly good job of locating what you want as long as you steer clear of uncommon requests. For example, Tellme sent me to a post office in response to my “postcards” request (not really what I wanted) while Google was sure I needed to talk to the coast guard. (To its credit, Google kinda got it right the second time around, recognizing the request properly but then offering to connect me to the Pleasure Chest in Chicago, citing it as a. . . um, “related listing.”)

I was much more successful asking for “stationary” on 800-GOOG-411. I was quickly connected with The Paper Source on Armitage Avenue. I’m sorry to report this request was equally perplexing for Tellme though. Granted, I am being a bit unfair, and by no means am I arguing that these systems don’t work well. In most cases, things went smoothly. But with these limit cases, it was interesting to see how each service reacted. It’s one of the most important aspects of the work we do at Versay — designing applications to get callers back on track when things go wrong. These factors are amplified dramatically when you are working with the large number of options required by automated directory assistance.

As Om Malik points out, Google’s entry into this space, while no great surprise (do I sense a bit of a yawn, Om?), certainly spells trouble for pure-play providers like 800-FREE-411 (373-3411) and 800-411-SAVE (411-7283). And no doubt Yahoo is just around the corner. On the other hand, it is a definitive vote of confidence in the viability of large-scale speech application deployments and one hopes a sign of further innovation to come.