Can Talking Heads Make Your Site More Personal?

I hesitate to pick on any one company. But I will. That said, I really do wish it the very best, and I would be delighted if its services turn out to do a great job for both itself and its clients.

But it’s not for me.

The service is Facemail, and you can download it for yourself here.

It seems to have a couple of things in mind. First, in its own words, “Facemail provides a fun, entertaining, and easy-to-use way for consumers to add expression to email communication.”

I agree absolutely. Using Facemail, you can have an animated face deliver your email by voice. You pick a face from a choice of five. There’s a choice of three white females, one white male, and one African-American male. If none of these fit, you’ll have to pretend you’re someone else.

You can also pick a facial expression by selecting from a wide choice of emoticons. Strangely, you can make the white guy look disgusted, but that option isn’t available to the African-American guy.

Is this a fun and entertaining way to send emails? I think so. I had particular fun giving myself a female voice, a happy smile, and then filling the text box with horrible profanities. You could have a lot of fun bugging your friends with this.

But here comes the bit I’m not so excited about. Again, in its own words: “And companies and Web businesses can represent themselves with a powerful and enhanced human presence — via virtual salespersons, site guides, and customer service representatives. In fact, LifeFX will enable the face of brands online. The scalable, flexible LifeFX Stand-In technology allows a business to execute its online customer relationships with unprecedented human-like interactivity.”

Please don’t. Really.

Online retail sites are already horrible enough for their users. Please spare users another plug-in to download. And this doesn’t even come close to “human-like interactivity.” It is clearly a computer-animated face, and the voices remind me of that funky new feature I so enjoyed on my first Mac computer back in 1985. It’s the voice of a computer.

Is this the face and voice I’d recommend that you use for customer service at your site? No. Not unless you want the “face of your brand” to express the cold, bleak, emotionless landscape of thousands of lines of bare code. Shoppers find the Web inhuman enough already. What’s the point in making it worse?

And what’s with the voice thing anyway? If you think it’s easier to absorb information by voice than it is by text, you’re mistaken. The meaning of a spoken word is accessed by a listener’s brain in about a fifth of a second. The meaning of a printed word is registered in about an eighth of a second (“Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language,” Steven Pinker, Perennial Press).

So if this great new technology doesn’t put anything like a human face on your communications, and if there is no advantage in speed of comprehension, what’s the point?

You’re better off writing some great text on your site, so visitors don’t need any extra help. Or employing some customer service staff who really are human and who can write or answer the phone as humans.

You know, the real thing.

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