There is one hard truth about self-service: It must be an easier experience for the customer than calling the contact centre, otherwise it's a waste of time for everyone.
There are two crucial ingredients for success.
Firstly, the self-service knowledge base must contain the information the user wants. Secondly, the relevant information must be served up quickly and easily, without frustrating the user with unhelpful responses so they end up shouting down the phone instead.
An effortless self-service experience means a satisfied customer. Just as importantly, each effortless experience contributes to the long-term success of an organisation’s knowledge management strategy. Good experiences encourage users to turn to self-service rather than to assisted service channels in the future.
Regular use keeps the knowledge base healthy and up to date, maintaining its relevance for your customers. This makes the usability of self-service knowledge a key factor in return on investment.
Why user effort matters
Ease of use directly impacts the bottom line - most of all because it leads to long-term adoption of self-service - but reaching the point where self-service is easy to use needs the organisation to focus on a knowledge management strategy.
As soon as customers find they can answer their enquiries easily online, most make self-service their first-choice channel. The number of enquiries reaching an organisation’s contact centre then falls, reducing support costs and enabling customer service agents to concentrate on complex issues that require personal attention. Contact centre managers are better able to meet KPIs. CSAT scores increase. Customer retention and loyalty goes up.
Self-service provides other benefits. High traffic volumes provide knowledge editors with a continuous stream of feedback, in the form of both comments from customers and statistics of knowledge base use. This feedback helps editors refine the knowledge base to meet user needs, adding content when they identify gaps or rewriting content that gets negative comments. Content stays relevant and fresh.
In a virtuous circle, relevant content attracts new and repeat users, users keep up the flow of feedback, content improves through successive iterations, and the knowledge base becomes more valuable to users.
What determines user effort
Usability tends not to be a major consideration for organisations when buying self-service tech. For one thing, features and price take priority; for another, usability is hard to judge outside battlefield conditions. But usability is key to adoption of any related technology, since people won’t use an application if it takes more effort than it’s worth.
For a knowledge portal, the principal factor in ease of use is the quality of information retrieval. The system must understand what the user wants to know and return the correct information, first time. This depends on the system’s internals, particularly its artificial intelligence.
Factors affecting user effort
- Does the system understand the meaning of a user’s enquiry? To handle a user’s request intuitively, the system must understand what it means. The system must understand concepts, not just keywords, so it can find the right information regardless of how searches are worded. This requires semantic search technology that can parse queries as natural language.
- Are search results targeted? To avoid swamping the reader, results should be restricted to a specified number or to a minimum degree of relevance, after which further ones need not be displayed. Results of a search should be ordered meaningfully, with the most relevant at the top for quick access.
- How much do users have to type? Extended typing takes effort, especially on mobile devices. Anything that reduces typing – such as automatically completing search phrases – reduces effort.
- Can users find what they need without having to do anything at all? At its most intuitive, a knowledge management system can use data from the user’s context and history to suggest content likely to be relevant, even before the user has taken an action.
- Is the required information available? Content is queen. If the knowledge the user wants isn’t available, even the best search technology won’t help them. Quality content requires a cohesive knowledge management strategy and regular, iterative improvements. As stated above, a positive response from the knowledge base’s users will help create a virtuous cycle of content improvement.
- Is the user interface uncluttered and easy to understand? While information retrieval is more important than the design of the interface, a simple interface without distractions [The Body Shop is a good example] helps the user find what they want easily.
Measuring user effort
Effort is a matter of perception and can vary from person to person, so measurement is based on objective evaluation, as well as more subjective factors from personal experiences.
- Follow best practice. Objective criteria like accessibility to users with disabilities, or consistent placement of navigation controls, can be satisfied by enforcing guidelines for design best practice.
- Survey your users. Exit surveys are a good way to capture users’ perceptions of their experience. Were they able to complete their task? Did they find it easy? What were their energy levels and emotional state by the end?
- Observe users. Conduct user research in which you observe people performing everyday tasks. Note points at which they hit difficulties or get frustrated.
- Mine statistics. Knowledge base statistics offer a wealth of information about users’ behaviour, although interpreting them isn’t always straightforward.
- Use the system yourself! Make the knowledge portal your own destination of choice for answering questions. You’ll soon discover if you spend more time banging your head than filling it with wisdom.
In the end, it comes down to this - can users find what they need, when they need it, with the minimum of thought and action on their part?
About Heather Richards
Heather has over 20 years’ experience in the IT industry, having worked in both the US and UK.
Throughout her career she has excelled in marketing, sales, consultancy and management, proving herself to be a strong, insightful leader. As part of Transversal’s original team, she has been with the company for more than a decade, and has been instrumental in the company’s growth from a Cambridge technology start-up into the successful business it is today. Heather is passionate about finding creative approaches to complex problems, and encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration as a way of embracing and capitalising on change.
Heather holds BAs in English and Philosophy from Westminster College (USA), and an M.Phil. in European Literature from the University of Cambridge.