GOOG-411 In Memoriam—What Can We Learn?

“Oh, it’s a sad day in techland,” says David Pogue of the New York Times, apparently a big, lonely fan of Google’s now-defunct voice-activated directory-assistance service.

Google announced just last month that the company is pulling the plug on the three-year-old GOOG-411.

On Pogue’s blog, he explains his lamentations:

On Nov. 12, Google will turn off 800-GOOG-411 forever. It was one of the best, juiciest, most useful services in all phonedom. It didn’t cost anything. It didn’t require a smartphone. Its accuracy was uncanny.

In case you missed it, GOOG-411 is a free, voice-activated directory-assistance service. You say the business name or category you want — “Freestyle Gym,” “taxi,” “Sakura restaurant,” “hospital,” whatever — and the city and state. In one second, the guy’s voice starts reading a list of the best eight results.

You interrupt him by saying, “number two” or whatever. Then you can say “details” to hear him read you the address and phone number. Or you can say “text message” to have him text you the information. But if you just hang on, he connects your call for free.

You never actually hear the phone number. But why should you care? You just want to call the place, right? It’s like having a little assistant dude back at HQ connecting your calls — and if you’re driving, which you often are when you use this service, never once did you take your eyes off the road. Or even write anything down. People who knew about GOOG-411 adored it. But Google is about to turn it off forever.

Sadly, the service seems to be falling victim to Google’s own ambition, as the company appears to have been using it the whole time as a stepping stone for future IVR ventures. But what can we learn in the meantime from this former on-the-go oracle? Let’s take a look at what Pogue so adored about the IVR service:

Intuition: Let’s face it—your system is going to run into all sorts of caller complications. Customers with thick accents. Customers who mumble and bumble. Customers who don’t understand the system. Customers who just really aren’t sure what information they need or task they’re trying to achieve from the call. Make your automated IVR system one that makes the caller feel like you’re ready, eager, and capable of meeting their needs.

Ease: In a car, at the bar, on a date with a bombshell from Bryn Mawr—GOOG-411 was there when he needed it, with or without a smartphone. Don’t assume your callers will have the latest technology.

Accuracy: Nothing’s more confusing and aggravating than an automated IVR system that leaves a caller guessing about how to get what they want. In the middle of worrying about all the other potential customer turnoffs, don’t lose sight of accuracy and quality control.

Interruptibility: The system wasn’t eager to hear itself talk (all the way through a menu), and was happy to quit doing so at any time. Busy callers will appreciate the chance to do the same.

The GOOG-411 service was discontinued on Nov. 12. Now, as Pogue points out, Microsoft’s BING-411 service might be an even better example of an IVR solution done the right way.