Help me, please: User testing, automating customer service, and treating people nicely

Authors: Ashley Karr
Posted: Tue, February 11, 2014 - 12:46:24

Take away: Designs that automate customer service work best when they are based upon the Golden Rule. In other words, treat your users as you would like to be treated. 

During 2013, I worked on a number of projects that involved automating customer service. Common themes ran through the data from every user test, regardless of the context, the platform, or the type of service or product the company sold. I thought it would be helpful to sum up these common themes so other researchers, designers, and users could benefit from this information.

Triggers for using customer service

There appeared to be three main triggers that caused people to seek out customer service:

  • The user had problems while using the product or service website, mobile site, or application.
  • The user had problems with or questions about the product or service that they had purchased or were about to purchase. 
  • There was mismanagement of or lack of clarity with regard to the user’s time and money by the company that provided them with the product or service.

If designers of services, products, and systems can keep these triggers in mind, perhaps these triggers can be phased out of a design. This way, users will need to seek help less frequently.


Users never mentioned that they needed support. They only mentioned the term customer service in a statement like, “At this point, I would be angry and call Customer Service.” Most frequently, when users came to a place in a test where they didn’t know what to do next, they would say, “I need help.” Help was what users called what they needed and were looking for when they did not know what to do next or could not find what they needed. They never called what they needed support or customer support. Only rarely did they call it customer service, and many users had negative associations with this term. As a result, many of the design teams I worked with labeled the customer service section of the site, Help. 


More than half of the users I worked with last year did not know that FAQs stood for Frequently Asked Questions. Most of the users, however, had negative associations with the term FAQs. Users would say things like, “I don’t know what FAQs stand for, but I do know to stay away from them. They never help me.” (Again, the word help!) As a result of this trend, the design teams labeled this section something like Useful Info, and worked to make this part of the site or application more helpful and useful to users. 


Chat had mixed results. Many users would initially use chat for help when faced with a problem they were not able to solve as long as they knew the chat was operated by a live person and gave relevant and useful information. They would abandon the chat as soon as it seemed like the responses were automated or if the responses did not solve their problem. 

Why people call customer service

Users didn’t actually want to call customer service. They had a want or need, and they believed, due to past experience, that calling customer service was the best way for their want or need to be met. If users knew they could get their wants and needs met by doing something other than calling customer service, they would. According to users, this was what they wanted and needed when they called customer service:

  • An immediate solution and or resolution to their problem. Users wanted their problems to be solved immediately—or at the very least, as soon as possible.
  • An actual resolution. Perhaps a solution was found, but if an actual resolution to the problem was not immediately apparent, then users felt alienated, lost trust in the company, and questioned whether or not they would remain a customer.
  • Validation of information received. Users wanted to be sure that the company, customer service representative, and/or system received and understood their information. Users also wanted to know when their information was received and when to expect the next line of communication and or resolution of the problem.
  • Emotional validation. Users wanted the company, customer service representative, and/or system to validate what they were feeling emotionally. Users wanted to be heard and understood. They wanted empathy.
  • Personal connection. Users wanted to be treated with kindness and respect from other people and from systems that people create, design, manufacture, and perpetuate. 

Good manners and empathy

Users responded very well to good manners and empathy. Good manners are polite social behaviors. They are important because they aim to make another person feel comfortable and valued. Empathy is the ability to understand and share feelings with others. It is important because it is the basis for building trust, communication, and relationships. It is, in essence, the emotional glue of society. Interestingly, the more users were treated like people who truly mattered, the more the users responded positively to the design. Apparently, the Golden Rule applies quite well to design. Treat users the way you would like to be treated. Designs are simply things we make to interact with other people, and wouldn’t it be a relief if we all treated each other, either directly or by proxy, nicely?

Posted in: on Tue, February 11, 2014 - 12:46:24

Ashley Karr

Ashley is a UX instructor with GA and runs a UX consulting firm,
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