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Customer self-service for the hangry

In early 2018, researchers discovered cells in mouse brains that are only triggered when they’re anxious. The cells turn on other parts of the brain associated with anxiety. And, as anyone who’s ever been anxious has experienced, once all those anxiety bits are turned on, other things turn off. Your analytical skills are overridden by your fight or flight mechanisms. This is to protect you from overthinking it when you’re about to be eaten, or hit by a bus. I bring this up because I fear UI and UX designers can forget this when creating self-service experiences for customers.

When you’re using a self-service checkout kiosk, for example, there’s often someone waiting in line behind you. As you’re staring at the instructions and fiddling with the screen, chances are you’re very aware (or just paranoid) that they’re thinking, “Helllooooo! It’s the blue button! Are you really this stupid? I have a train to catch!”

Under pressure, your brain moves quickly from analysis and problem-solving mode to a fight or flight reaction. It says to you, “Forget this task. Let’s go someplace safe.” That’s bad news for any business hoping to provide a smooth self-service customer experience and encourage repeat business.

Anxiety isn’t the only reason people struggle to figure things out. Life gets in the way: you had a fight with your partner or kid, or you’re sick, on a new diet, or late for a flight or important meeting. A lot of things cause us to be distracted in moments when we’re expected to focus on the task at hand. That’s why customer self-service interfaces shouldn’t be designed for people fully in command of their faculties. Instead, they should be designed for—and tested by—people who are hangry or have the flu, or by coffeeholics without their morning cup of joe. Add fuel to the fire by setting time limits. That’s the only way to know if the experience you’re designing really works.

Customer self-service interfaces shouldn't be designed for people fully in command of their faculties. Instead, they should be designed for, and tested by, people who are hangry or have the flu, or by coffeeholics without their morning cup of joe.

An epic human fail

On the morning of January 13, 2018, an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency began his shift; that day, he was tasked with initiating a test of the emergency management system. From a drop-down menu on a computer program, he saw two options: “Test missile alert” and “Missile alert.” He accidentally chose the second, and the entire state of Hawaii was plunged into panic when this message was broadcast: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

People believed—with good reason—that they only had moments to live, that they would never see or speak to loved ones again. It took 38 minutes to send out a second message announcing that there was no ballistic missile headed for Hawaii.

That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re distracted.

Usually, the consequences aren’t so dire. More often, we’re faced with an online form that ends with a “Reset” button placed directly next to a “Submit” button. Accidentally hit the wrong one and you have to fill out the form all over again. Or, it’s not having a “Back” button clearly marked, or a form that automatically erases everything you’ve done when you forget to select a required form field along the way.

Recently, I faced this quandary while trying to check in for a flight to Washington D.C. Though I aspire to be one of those people who breeze through the airport with their well-packed carry-ons, handling all hurdles with the expertise of a Hibachi knife-wielding Japanese chef, I don’t travel as often as I’d like, and I don’t always use the same airlines. In between trips, things change, or I forget how the process worked the last time.

At the self-service check-in kiosk—a required step—the screen read: Enter your Record Locator or eTicket Number. Right next to this command were three rectangular buttons that prompted three more actions: Swipe your passport, Swipe your credit card, and Scan your boarding pass.

I started with the eTicket Number, but was having trouble locating it on the email from the airline. Feeling the pressure of people waiting behind me, I thought I remembered sticking my phone, with the QR code, into the slot for the machine to scan. So I tried that, but it didn’t work. I felt so dumb for having stuck the phone in the machine, much like a two-year-old putting a toy in the toaster. Meanwhile, the minutes were passing. The savvy travelers behind me watched me do my Mr. Bean Takes a Plane routine; I felt like the machine was sucking the intelligence right out of me. I had to figure it out before someone came along to offer assistance.

Some human help would be great, but in the self-service world, it’s also the sign of failure. I later learned that there are several YouTube videos that can help you avoid looking like an idiot at the airport.

Some human help would be great, but in the self-service world, it’s also the sign of failure.

Design for the distracted

Even interfaces that seem simple can have glitches. Not long ago I was in a car full of people trying to save time by using the app to order from Starbucks. Conceptually, this is brilliant and if you only wanted one or two drinks, it would work fine. Each drink can be customized to your heart’s content, but multiplied by eight, the task becomes labor intensive. When one person wanted to change the way they ordered their drink, the app warned that the all the account holder’s previous settings would be lost. We were in a hurry. And we panicked, feeling collectively and unconsciously that it was rude or selfish to do something to mess with the account holder’s settings. Then, by the time we got to the store, they hadn’t actually started our order, so it didn’t save us any time.

Most people who design customer interfaces—whether to help surface a product or service, or to issue a subway ticket—know the point is to help the customer take care of business without having to talk to a human. Human interactions are inherently slower, and also more expensive for the company. The problem is that a lot of customer interfaces seem to only be tested on people who know the product, and the desired inputs and outputs. These experiences don’t always take into account movement from a website or app to a physical process. A good self-service experience is one that new customers can navigate with few, if any, questions along the way.

That goes for your support experience, too. In an ideal world, your UI and UX design is intuitive and perfect. But in the real world, how do customers find help when they need it? If your customer experiences aren’t backed by support interfaces and options that are also easy to maneuver, you’ll turn a confused customer into a truly angry one.

Here are some tips to avoid the angry—or hangry—customer:

Understand the customer journey. Start to finish, how does the customer begin, where might they make a wrong turn, and how will they find help? Whether this journey is a physical one in an airport, or an online path to a checkout page, make sure you know where the literal or figurative help desk is, and provide clear signage to get there. Consider that everyone knows they need some form of ID and a confirmation number to check in to a flight, but few people have these items ready when it’s their turn to step up to the kiosk. That’s what you’re dealing with.

Reduce friction. Does your design, layout, and copy help customers make decisions quickly, or does it stump them and induce anxiety?

I keep hearkening back to my trip to D.C. because I was there for a month, and because it wasn’t my home turf, I constantly encountered new interfaces. I traversed several times from Georgetown to the suburb of Fairfax. My GPS clearly told me to turn left at one street that had a big DO NOT ENTER sign. Underneath the sign were instructions that read something like: Except between 3:37 and 8:52 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or from 10:09 a.m. to 4:31 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays occurring in months that begin with an A or a J or on holidays involving cake.

Okay, it may not have said that exactly, but close enough. And in Washington D.C. traffic, there wasn’t even really time to read it all the way through.

Make it intuitive. This is where I run into trouble: Intuitive for whom? Is the experience intuitive for people that know your business, what they’re looking for, and that use the same terminology?

Consider that people will take the terminology of your instructions literally. One woman I know said whenever her mother used the ATM, for years, she would enter her debit card and withdraw $20. Then she would end the transaction, slide the card in again, and withdraw another $20 until she had all the money she needed. Why would she do this? The machine told her to withdraw cash in $20 increments.

Listen to customer feedback. Yes, I know we’ve all gotten used to the grocery store checkout machine telling us there’s an unexpected item in the bagging area when we absolutely expected it to be there. But that’s groceries—we all have to buy them. Self-service is wonderful when it works well, and even when it doesn’t, it can be a great source of feedback. Look at your support data. What are customers searching for on your website? Why are they calling? Changes are good there’s an opportunity to improve your website, your online support center, or both.

Sometimes the customer is to blame for a self-service fail, but the customer is always who you’re trying to appeal to. Don’t expect them to be on their A-game, and do everyone a favor by saving them a trip to sites like, which direct customers to backdoor phone numbers for companies that are tough to reach. In a world of easy, breezy self-service experiences, sites like wouldn’t even exist. Imagine that.

Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.