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Help customers help themselves—by avoiding these design pitfalls

How many times have you used a website or customer help center, or stood behind a self-service kiosk and thought: “Who designed this thing, and what were they smoking?” Poorly designed service experiences are funny—as long as they don’t happen to you.

Of course, no doubt there’s a well-meaning designer behind every experience intended to enable a customer to accomplish something on their own. Sometimes that designer is a User Experience (UX) or User Interface (UI) expert focused on intelligent and intuitive design, building an experience around the way people actually function. Other times, it feels like the designer was more focused on making something cool and distinctive and forgot the real goal was to design something so useful that even someone on day two of a keto diet could handle it. Given how much information about good design is available and at our disposal, it’s kind of amazing how much bad design is out there.

Here are some common pitfalls that cause customer self-service experiences to fall short:

1. Ignoring the customer journey. I discovered my favorite example of this on the website Cognitive Science: In a bathroom at the University of Lyon II in France, there is a single roll of toilet paper. One. For several stalls. The dispenser hangs on the wall outside the toilets. Presumably, students and staff know that they should get toilet paper before they go into the stall. But what if they don’t? There’s no sign to warn or instruct them. Sure, a lot of students probably use this bathroom and get the hang of it, but what about new students? What about their parents or other visitors? What happens when you’re in a stall and realize that there’s no paper? Or what if you took some in, but it wasn’t enough? Mon dieu.

2. Going left, when everyone else goes right. For example, it’s generally accepted that “Command S” saves a document. But if instead, it deletes the document, we’re unlikely to say, “Well, isn’t that fun and quirky!” Especially if we follow with “Command Z” and are taken down some other adventurous path.

You might say, “Well, no one would do that,” but one maker of a popular, free 3D rendering software apparently plays fast and loose with established design principles—asking users to right click in places they would expect to left click, for example. The software also allows users to overwrite another file without that failsafe question: Are you sure you want to do that? Strangely, the software always double-checks with the user when they move to save the file they’re working on. When surprises like these are designed into software, it's kind of like booby-trapping a process that was challenging to begin with.

3. Setting it and forgetting it. A website is a form of self-service. Whether it is an e-commerce site where people actually buy things or a consulting site where you go to find a service, a company’s website is the way consumers get information, make decisions, and eventually make purchases. But if you create a website and leave it untended, the only decision you help people make is to get away, fast.

One example of this is when a website feels dated, leaning on obnoxious gimmicks like Adobe Flash intros, media that auto-plays, or that require a plugin to view the content, like Creative with a K. Once the site loads, it’s so chaotic that all you really want is to escape. It was built in 2009, before we discovered clean and simple—but at least it’s a lot more recent than the still operational 1996-era Space Jam website.

If you create a website and leave it untended, the only decision you help people make is to get away, fast.

Another problem with “set it and forget it” is when your site is no longer helpful. Customers can’t see upcoming events or current prices because no one is posting them. You may be able to see that the company intended to help, a year ago, when somebody started a calendar or promoted a sale, but no one has looked at it since then.

The other crucial part of setting and forgetting it is that you lose valuable insight into the way customers interact with your business. With the right tools, your website becomes of a wealth of information, allowing you to discover where customers bail on transactions, or at what point they give up looking for information on their own and decide to contact you. Armed with that knowledge, you can improve the experience. Otherwise, your site is just gathering dust, like an old fax machine.

4. Designing for the company, not the customer. I can’t use my bank’s mobile app anymore. Why? Because, as of a couple weeks ago when I tried to log in, it said: “Tough nuggets, get the new iOS or you can’t use this app.” Or something like that. According to the person I spoke with at the bank, the app is updated pretty regularly, which means I need to keep updating my phone. She seemed kind of annoyed with me.

I should just update, right? Except that that requires more storage than I have, so I either have to buy more storage for the upgrade I don’t want or take other stuff off my phone. Trying to take photos off my phone, which seemed like a good alternative, caused other problems, so more storage it is. Instead of making something that works well for a long time without interruption, the company makes it essential to buy upgrades, new cords, chargers, ports, and software, even if we’re perfectly happy with the old ones. Apple is famous for this. The risk for them is that they’ve developed a consumer cult following based on awesome design—the kind that leads fans to stand in line for hours, in all kinds of weather. But lately, people have been wondering if the Emperor has no clothes. Are Apple's designs still adding enough value to make us cough up more dough? Does Apple still offer the best design, or are they setting themselves up to be disrupted by a company that’s more customer-centric?

Are Apple's designs still adding enough value to make us cough up more dough? Does Apple still offer the best design, or are they setting themselves up to be disrupted by a company that’s more customer-centric?

5. Forcing customers to use self-service. I can’t say that I personally know anyone who has screamed at their telephone: “Why the *@#&! can’t I talk to a person!?” before throwing their pricey (and ludicrously fragile) mobile device across the room, but I’ve heard that that happens. When you call a number and you can pay your bill, report a service outage, order new service or any number of other things but can’t ever escape The Matrix to talk to a person, that’s a self-service fail. Self-service should be an option, not a requirement. Even worse are companies that don’t have a number on their “contact us” page at all… like Google. When a customer has to resort to using Get Human to find a sneaky way to talk to customer service, you’re sending the message that you just want people to give you their money and leave you alone. In 2018, this is the opposite of how companies that are rocking it operate; instead, businesses are going omnichannel, making themselves more available, on more channels, so that the customer experience is low-effort and lets customers quickly return to their lives.

6. Penalizing customers for using self-service. If you’re asking customers to run through self-service channels first, but your self-service doesn’t meet their needs, it’s a rough deal to then be put in a queue for the next available agent, forced to listen to really bad hold music. Next time, I’m guessing that customer will skip the supposedly time-saving self-service and go straight for the human help. One of my editors recently experienced this at an airport car rental counter. There was a long line for the counter and shorter lines at the self-service kiosks. But the kiosks were unmanned and, one by one, each person attempting to self-serve eventually got in line for human help, angry that they were forced to stand in two lines (and still unaware that a third line was in their future). There was no clear and easy path to a car, unlike the car2go experience.

7. Lost in translation. One of my favorite social media memes involved an illustration of a bathroom hand dryer. It showed how you push a button for streams of hot air—represented by red wiggly lines—to warm your waiting hands. The caption read: Push Button, Receive Bacon.

Helpful icons and graphics need to accurately represent what they are. But sometimes when we use visual shorthand to communicate, we send confusing signals. The color of language on a website can suggest that something is clickable (when it’s not), especially if it’s blue. Some elevators have two similar buttons that both close the doors—but how is one to know? Or take these mysterious symbols, in a rented Cadillac that seemed to communicate: Check your travel list, look to the horizon, pick up hitchhikers… Personally, I would have loved some help when trying to do my laundry in an apartment in Oslo that I rented on Airbnb. I’m used to selecting washing settings on the machine itself but, instead, they were located on a central panel operated using the apartment key, and were difficult to decode. What I thought would be a 10-minute task took closer to an hour.

8. Leaving customers stranded. I use the invoicing software Sighted and absolutely love it. There’s only one problem: I often work for clients by the hour and can’t figure out the time tracker to save my life. And I’m pretty tech-savvy. There are no instructions. Anywhere. I’ve searched the site. I’ve Googled it. I’ve clicked on all the buttons. At some point, I started the timer and it’s still going. Actually, that was 50 days, 1 hour and 42 minutes ago. I know that because the timer is recording how long I’ve been stuck on this problem.

Whenever you’re designing for a customer to accomplish a task on their own, or to find the answer to a question, the most important thing is that their journey to the endpoint is short and that customers can find what they need as painlessly as possible. Once that’s true, then you can get creative, like the British grocery store that tried to make customers love self-checkout over the holidays by hiring the voice actor from Wallace and Gromit to say things like “Don’t get your tinsel in a tangle.”