An idea for phones, voice mail systems, and touch-tone mazes Ryan 08 Nov 2005

47 comments Latest by TonyH

Forgetting how technically difficult this may be, here’s an idea…

There should be a standard to display voice mail and touch tone options on a cell phone screen. So, for example, if I call a company, and they say “Press 1 for this, Press 2 for that, Press 3 for this thing, Press 4 for that thing” it would be great if the options would appear on my phone screen like:

  1. This
  2. That
  3. This thing
  4. That thing

Then, when I press a number, the next series of menus immediately appears on the screen:

  1. This
  2. That
  3. This thing


This would surely make it faster to navigate the maze as well as make it less likely to make a mistake (since I can see the options and I don’t need to remember them). # or * could always take you back a menu too.

If a phone didn’t support this standard then no harm done — the voice covers the options. So, if you’ve got it, great, if not, it still works as it has always worked.

Just an idea. Thoughts besides “I hate phone systems…” ?

47 comments (comments are closed)

Ian 08 Nov 05

This is one of the true great ideas of this blog. Just today I will be calling Cingular to ask them in person how to erase messages while the message is playing! Their new VM system is ridiculously complex and it would all be solved with a text based menu. I’m guessing the average 15 minute tech support call costs them around $30?

WHY hasn’t anyone done this yet?

Spike 08 Nov 05

New from 37signals … Switchboard?

Oh, wait, thats already been done :-)

A great idea IMHO: usually I don’t call the sort of numbers that have long-winded systems like this from anything but my plain ol’, run of the mill house phone. Sadly I also think that this is something we’ll never see thanks to our good friend the Cost Benefit Analysis :(

“It’ll cost you $5000 to implement but the user experience will be increased imeasurably”

“Will they spend less time on my premium rate helpline being passed between departments?”


ajr 08 Nov 05

They are long winded so you will burn minutes. My voicemail message says… “do not leave a message, your # is in my phone and I will return your call as soon as possible.” Besides, most of the messages are “hey, call me back” 08 Nov 05

This is a great idea, especially since all phones are becoming more and more graphically equipped.

I’d be very happy with this functionality: especially when you remember that the service you want is _somewhere_ between option 7 and 9. You can select from a visual menu at a glance, waiting for someone to read aloud 6 options before it gets interesting takes time an is frustrating. The latter is also a reason for helpdesks to invest in this kind of solution, it could reduce verbal abuse of their employees.

Jamie 08 Nov 05

As ajr said above, the phone companies want you to burn minutes listening to long winded menu systems (try UGC Cinemas in the UK for a good (bad?) example of this).

And since the phone companies are they ones that sell you the handsets, what’s in it for them?

Unless, of course, the first message you see on screen when dialing a compatible menu system is “Press 1 to use SupaKwikMenus. You will be charged 50p.”

Apart from the phone companies inevitably messing it up, it’s a nice idea.

s 08 Nov 05


Just today I will be calling Cingular to ask them in person how to erase messages while the message is playing!

Press 7 a couple of times in a row and that should delete it. I found this out by accident.

MrBlank 08 Nov 05

I want all voicemail systems to be consistent. At work, my voicemail uses number “7” (P) as the button to play my message, while on my Sprint phone number “7” deletes my message. >:(

pwb 08 Nov 05

Just today I will be calling Cingular to ask them in person how to erase messages while the message is playing!

Cingular is colossally insane.

For no reason that I can think of, deleting a message while listening now requires one to hit “7” twice. But be careful, once you get to the end of the message, you only need to hit 7 once. But have no fear, hitting 7 once while listening to the message does nothing.

Utter idiocy from Cingular.

Anonymous Coward 08 Nov 05

I guess it would be interesting for 0800/local rate/government support lines.

The phone companies can probably mess this up by developing some form of advertising which takes up most of the time saved by a numbered-list-menu.

Don Wilson 08 Nov 05

Good idea. Also a message after you follow the maze that shows what’s happening, eg “Redirecting you to operator… Listen in.” so you know when to put your ear back to the phone.

Jim Remsik 08 Nov 05

Spike said:

“usually I don’t call the sort of numbers that have long-winded systems like this from anything but my plain ol’, run of the mill house phone.“

How long until the average house phone has a built in LCD? Sure you can buy them but with all the rush to get wireless phones to do everything but make coffee why are non-mobile phones being left in the lurch?

That is outside of the fact that most people won’t pay $300 for a non-mobile phone.

Don Wilson 08 Nov 05

why are non-mobile phones being left in the lurch?

Because most (99%) of all corded phones are $20 and lower. Highly unlikely to put an lcd on the phone and still keep it that low.

Stridey 08 Nov 05

Just today I will be calling Cingular to ask them in person how to erase messages while the message is playing!

Cingular is colossally insane.

For no reason that I can think of, deleting a message while listening now requires one to hit “7” twice. But be careful, once you get to the end of the message, you only need to hit 7 once. But have no fear, hitting 7 once while listening to the message does nothing.

Utter idiocy from Cingular.

This potential problem can be avoided by hitting “33” to skip to the end of the message, then hitting “7” to delete.

Oh yeah, and that idea is brilliant. I’d love to see it implemented.

Spike 08 Nov 05

Jim —

My housephone has a built in LCD, but its a tiny wee one for Caller ID. Fair point, though, although I still really don’t see anyone except Government Offices and those with a tangible obligation towards accessibility ever using something like this.

Martin 08 Nov 05

From a technical perspective:

Could be quite easily made a feature in VoIP. For regular phones: At least for ISDN, the D-Channel is there for signaling and could be used to send the data. But the telcos do not allow this.

cjs. 08 Nov 05

Great idea, but I would like to get rid of the buttons on the phone altogether and just use a touch-screen (like a phone PDA). I get the 12 standard buttons when I need them, otherwise I’m presented with a plain-english menu directly from the number I’ve called.

Brian L. 08 Nov 05

I have been thinking that exact same thing. My office desk phone works like that (just with our voice mail system, that is) There is an LCD display and, while it still has the voice prompts, the choices are displayed on the screen. So much easier to use.

Sam 08 Nov 05

I don’t think would do a lot to to really help the REAL problem which is, as everyone else has noted, the *deliberate* sabatoging of these systems to make the user hang up. You’re examples were vague on purpose, but I have no problem believing that some phone tree would actually have options like

1. Your Account
2. Your Settings
3. Your Information
4. Your Personal Records

Along those same lines, isn’t it incredible how every phone system in the world has options ‘that have recently changed” ? ugh.

Ian 08 Nov 05

Woah, thanks guys— lucky 77 to kill the message. For the record, you can kill it with one 7 if it’s new, but if you’re reviewing an old message it takes two 7’s. I’m sure the logic of the engineer who developed this was that if you didn’t delete the message right away, it’s probably somewhat important and shouldn’t be easily deleted, hence the “safer” double 7.

Good to see in 2005 the inmates are still running the asylum!

David 08 Nov 05

I hate phone systems!

C’mon, 19 comments and nobody said it?

Chris 08 Nov 05

Jason’s idea sounds a port of 1993 Gopher technology to 2006 cell phones.

jordan 08 Nov 05

I’d just be happy if I could use my mobile’s keypad when dealing with voicemail. Perhaps it’s because I’ve got an ancient model (nokia 2285), but for some reason, punching numbers or */# doesn’t send a tone—instead, it starts putting in digits to call somebody!

Thus, the following number sequence is dialed as one long string:
(mobile number) (pause three seconds) (wait for my keypress, signifying the system has asked for my password) (send password) (wait for keypress) (pretend to press `listen to messages’ number)

If I want to have any control over messages, I’ll have to then edit the sequence to something like
(mobile) (wait) (password) (wait) (`listen’) (save/delete/whatever) (&c.)

I have no idea who decided this would be a shining gem in their feature line-up, but I’m sure they’ve had a lot of evil laughs from it.

Michael Baehr 08 Nov 05

This is already possible with the SIP protocol (a standard for Voice over IP signalling).

Most of the SIP phones I’ve used already support this feature. It requires you to be using a voice over IP system, of course, which limits its usability from most cell phones (though the latest generation from Nokia is incorporating SIP functionality). Most consumer VoIP systems also don’t support this feature, as they don’t allow you to hook up IP telephony equipment directly, instead choosing to mimic the existing analog phone systems you’re used to (but for cheaper). I’m looking at you, Vonage.

Another useful application I’ve found is transcribing for the deaf, particularly the ones who are able to speak coherently. You can conference two phones, one with a transcriptionist, and the other with the caller. The caller speaks, and the transcriptionist types what the other party says and messages it in real time to the caller’s phone.

pwb 08 Nov 05

you can kill it with one 7 if it’s new [on cingular]

Are you sure about that? I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.

This potential problem can be avoided by hitting “33” to skip to the end of the message, then hitting “7” to delete.

Uhmm…that’s worse!

Tom Werner 08 Nov 05

I think a human solution would be better than any amount of tech you could throw at the problem. How about no touch tone menu and the first thing you hear is a real live person. Calling 21st Century Insurance gives me this experience when I call, and it’s a wonderful treat.

But since most companies don’t put that much importance in their customers, how about not making me listen to hold music and spoken segments, so that I can use speakerphone and get on with my business while I wait in uninterrupted peace for a human voice that signifies someone is ready to answer my question.

But yes, a visual system integrated with the voice menu would surely be a nice touch. Certainly nothing is more frustrating than waiting 40 seconds for the slow voiced phantom to get to option 9 which is the one you want, not to mention trying to figure out which option is the correct one in the first place (but that’s another story).

Don Wilson 08 Nov 05

The worst is when I have to repeat my name numerous times to some guy from India.

Adam C 08 Nov 05

Very small companies get praised for not using touch tone systems. But they do it because they are very small. They are able to .

I like that for once someone came up with a good idea to go along with the problem, rather then just ranting needlessly.

And the using minutes while dialing voicemail issue.. I’ve never seen a provider charge for accessing your voicemail account. Unless you mean using minutes while dialing someone else’s voicemail.

grant 08 Nov 05

why not just publish the menu whereever you publish the phone number?

Tim 09 Nov 05

At&T worked on something like this with EO on the first smart phone, in 1992. We called it TouchTone II. We had it working for a couple of the big voicemail companies. Then EO went under. I don’t know what happened to it.

James Head 09 Nov 05

yep for T-Mobile here in the UK on the web site it lists the shortcuts.

- account upgrade package inquiry: 3 - 5 - 2
- report phone lost or stolen: 5 - 3 - 1

some companies might be hesitant to do this as if the call is charged they make more money the longer you are on the line.

Johnny Hockin 09 Nov 05

What about a voicemail system with various greetings? and a menu to choose the appropriate one depending on who is calling.

junior 09 Nov 05

Pet Peeves, the big 2:

(1) When hitting ‘0’ doesn’t take you to someone who will TALK to you.

(2) When the list of options skips a number in the sequence or is presented out of order.

It would be nice to standardize menus so that ‘*’ (or ‘#’ or something) ALWAYS brings you back to the parent menu from wherever you are.

Who’s got the petition? I’ll sign it!

Brad 09 Nov 05

Even worse I find are the voice recognition systems that can’t recognize my voice commands. Some polite guy, who never gets upset, asking questions and not understanding what I’m saying.

Guy: “Allright, what services are you interested in?”
Me: “Digital Cable’
Guy: “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand your request. Could you try that again?”
Me: “Di-gi-tal Ca-ble’
Guy: “Okay, High Speed Internet. If this is correct, please say yes.”
Me: “No”
Guy: “Allright, what services are you interested in?”
Guy: “It seems we’re having problems understanding each other. If you would like to speak to an operator, please say ‘Operator’”.
Me: “Operator”
Guy: “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you. Please call back when you have learned how to annunciate in a way that makes meaningful sense to me”.

Mark 09 Nov 05

It seems everytime I call a number with a myriad of options, I’m always calling to get to the same person / department each time - tech support, account inquiry…

Given this, what I’d like to see is some type of personalization where the phone system recognized my calling pattern and needs.

“Hello, [name], based on your previous requests of [requests made], I can connect you directly. Press “1” to be directly connected to [said department] or press “2” to continue to our menu…

Something like that would be cool.

Eddie 09 Nov 05

I have tried 77’s on cingular before- I don’t believe it worked for me.

I did take the time to look it up on the website- the pdf ( was useless. Can you hit the ‘#’ key to skip to the end of the message?

Anyway- I have my VM box set up for “Fast prompts” with skips some of the default verbage. It’s a little quicker and something that I welcomed when I switched to cingular.

Wes 09 Nov 05

My biggest peeve is that I call someone to leave a message. On Sprint, you press 1 to skip their message and go straight to recording yours. Other systems don’t let you do this or don’t tell you how.

I just wish they’d pick a standard and stick to it.

JF 09 Nov 05

You can press 1 on any Cingular customer’s voice mail to immediately leave a message.

Brady 09 Nov 05

voicemail messages in general are a maddening waste of time. i mean, this isn’t the 80’s, i get the leave a message routine. just a good recitation of your name is fine.

Brady 09 Nov 05

sorry to double post, but i meant voicemail greetings above

Philip Luedtke 10 Nov 05

They also very desperately need to integrate available/away status messages into the cell phone networks too. So I can put my phone status to “at a meeting” or “I have nothing to do so call me” and others see it on their phones…

andy 10 Nov 05

I couldn’t agree more with this post. I’ve also thought similarly about GPS and telephony in the car. Both are dangerous because they currently utilize too many visual components in their functionality, and require hand/s to leave the steering wheel. I really think cell phones should plug into “bases” that would allow voice-operated dialing options (beyond, say, your speed dial voice commands). GPS needs to have the options of being totally voice operated, since currently you have to look at the screen below the level of your windshield.

Jacob 10 Nov 05

Hunter suggests using SMS messages above, well such a system already exists. GSM is strong on the messaging functions, what with SMS, flash messages (appear immediately on screen and then discarded) plus other variations using the GSM control channel.

Such a system is in use by Orange France, I can call up a menu with #123# and then reply with numbers corresponding to options to get information or perform actions—not unlike WAP but without the hassle. Something I appreciate in any such system, is memorability and ease of navigation, so I was pleased to find that to top up my GPRS credit was 5-5-3-3-1 —albeit slightly more long-winded than it could be due to various ‘please confirm your choice’ type prompts. Technically this protocol allows the sequence to be sent as one command in the form #123#00#5#5#3#3#1# but this stopped working for me a while ago. Thanks to proper routing agreements I can even use these menu options to top-up my account from the UK too. Unfortunately I don’t know any other operators who use such a system.

This could be combined with a voice-driven menu by simply sending a flash message every time you navigate to a different menu.

Talking of voice menus I’m amused by Orange UK’s smoothly joined friendly announcements “Thank you, I’m just going to put that through for you, it’ll only take a moment… I’m still trying” etc. Makes a big difference but is slightly more unnerving than jerky badly segued announcements.

NickD 10 Nov 05

Forget cost/benefit, lockout by telcos, just do it. Make it open, make it run on any OS, give it a RoR web interface, make it work with wireless phones and VoIP. Maybe there is some way to incorporate this into Asterisk or Ragi, the Ruby/Asterisk project. But, to make it adoptable on a larger scale, you would need to make it easier to use than Asterisk. Are there “prepackaged” frameworks for Asterisk for a particular phone systems? Seems you would need to build an open system like Asterisk, and then your phone directory idea would just be one part of this larger system.

I have through of similar ideas, such as delivering images or interfaces during a VoIP call to the caller.

josh 11 Nov 05

Related idea:

Instead of waiting on hold, a system that would call you back when the company representative is available.