A Brief Perspective on the Evolution of IVR Technologies

With the constantly accelerating pace of technology advances, we sometimes lose sight of what earlier introductions of now commonly used services originally looked like.  So we thought you might enjoy a brief history on the evolution of IVR technologies.

Early on Automated Call Attendants (ACD) allowed for some basic or fundamental call routing capabilities.  The auto attendant had a very specific purpose in mind; to replace the live attendant or operator and route calls.  Most common auto attendant features included routing calls to an extension, transfer to voice mail, play messages, repeat menu selections, have a default mailbox, and allow you to “0” out to an operator.  All are important features, but with limited operational intelligence. Auto attendants were almost always integrated into a PBX system.

A PBX (private branch exchange) connects the internal phones, typically for a business to the external telephone network, and through trunk lines. Because PBX systems incorporated fax machines, modems, telephones, and more, the term “extension” became widely used to refer to any end point of the PBX.  As PBX systems became more powerful, enhanced features were added, but still not to the level of current IVR (interactive voice response) systems.

It was the invention of DTMF (dual-tone, multi-frequency signaling) that provided the technical foundation for future use of IVR systems.  DTMF or touch tone phone systems were first made available to the public in 1963.

It was in the early 1970’s that IVR systems began to make headway in call centers to automate basic, repetitive tasks.  Initially call center IVR systems were tied into larger mainframe computing systems. The technology was still fairly rudimentary and expensive.  By the 1980’s a growing number of new vendors, advances in technology (both computationally and in networking) made the use of IVR systems more cost effective.  As the IVR systems became more intelligent and powerful, application and specific industry usage increased.  This was also the time where IVR functionality became more intelligent and separated from PBX systems.

One of the earlier drawbacks to IVR systems was that almost all the programming languages were proprietary.  These proprietary languages or scripting tools were unique to the specific IVR vendor and not transportable across other IVR systems.  That limitation, combined with the fact that unless you are a Fortune 500 size firm, IVR development skills are not typically mainstream skills required by most companies.  That required a customer wishing to use IVR systems to rely heavily on the system vendor to also write the applications for their use.

Speech recognition for IVR systems, also known as Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) systems have continued to gain acceptance over time.  Speech Reco (industry slang referring to Automated Speech Recognition) began to make real inroads in the late 1990’s as the underlying speech recognition algorithms improved, along with the processing power of hardware.  Speech recognition applications bring their unique set of challenges as well as benefits, and speech reco enabled applications require a different development approach from DTMF based applications.  Interestingly, the first speech recognition device was showcased in 1952, and was capable of only recognizing single spoken digits. (1)

The widespread and rapid acceptance of the internet and web based applications proved to be another inflection point in the evolution of IVR systems and languages.  The desire for more tightly integrated capabilities of voice applications to internet based applications drove the development of VXML (Voice Extensible Markup Language) and CCXML (Call Control XML).

VXML and CCXML make it possible to develop applications that work on multiple platforms (with some limited porting efforts).  VXML specifically helps IVR applications integrate more effectively with internet based applications.  The IVR application can be written by individuals who are also experienced with web based application development using XML   A major goal of VXML was to make web based applications and content available through a voice portal.

CCXML is designed to enable call control telephony support for VXML applications. CCXML provides control for how phone calls are placed, answered, transferred, conferenced, and more.

Another significant advantage of making voice applications easily web compatible is the ability to deliver services through a hosted services or cloud based business model.  By opening up these previously proprietary systems, the focus is moving from hardware to the applications and services perspective.

Early adopters of IVR technologies included the financial industry, utilities, travel industry, and other capital intensive industries with high call volume customer care centers.  Current technology advances have driven down system costs, improved reliability, enabled more effective service delivery models, which in turn have enhanced and improved IVR system usage.

However, none of these advances mean much if companies using IVR systems do not stay laser focused on improving and enhancing the user experience based on these newer technologies.

As always, the team at Acclaim Telecom would be happy to discuss ways to use IVR applications to enhance top line revenue or improve operational effectiveness.  And we promise to keep the sales pitch in the desk drawer!

1 – Davies , K.H., Biddulph, R. and Balashek, S. (1952) Automatic Speech Recognition of Spoken Digits, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 24(6) pp.637 – 642