When in doubt: Minimising uncertainty across a service

Doubt. We have all experienced it at some point or another. That nagging feeling about whether we should do something or not. Should we continue or just turn away, choosing another course of action.

In experience design we talk a lot about things like conversion rates, task failure, and the understanding of the customer. However, recently I have been thinking about the distinction between what we consider to be a genuine mistake (for example, a customer’s failure to see the big shiny call to action on the page) and the scenario where a customer has a complete understanding of the situation they are in, they just have a reluctance to proceed.

The wikipedia entry for Doubt states:

…Doubt brings into question some notion of a perceived “reality”, and may involve delaying or rejecting relevant action out of concerns for mistakes or faults of appropriateness.

It is the part about “may involve delaying or rejecting” that interests me. This would seem to imply a customer led conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that the action they are about to engage in will result in some negative consequence.

At this point I would like to make it clear that I am not talking about issues surrounding trust of an organisation per se. I am talking about doubts that a customer feels when they are unclear as to whether their current course of action will adversely affect them now or at some point in the future.

The formation of doubt across a service
Recently I have been thinking that many cross channel services have the potential to instil a higher level of doubt in users over the impact their actions are having across the entire service. Much has been written of the silo-like nature of many services whereby the design of customer touch points in Channel A are vastly different compared to Channel B. Recent examples I have seen include:

The big number on my letter says Account Number but the website is asking for a Customer Reference Number. I better ring them to check


When I looked online yesterday this item had 30% off but now i’m in-store its full price. Ill check on my phone…oh its a different website again…

Remember I am not talking about customer confusion or misunderstanding here (these topics warrant further blog posts themselves). I am talking about a customer having a clear idea of where they are in the system but being reluctant to proceed.

Seeking reassurance
So we find ourselves in a situation whereby a customer is aware of their location in our wider service but due to disparities between our channels they are experiencing a high level of doubt. What typically happens in this situation?

A channel shift. More specifically a shift to a channel that will provide us with a greater sense of reassurance. For example, moving from a “Top Tasks Only” mobile site to the main desktop. Or moving from a desktop to a call centre. Therefore the consequences of these moments of doubt are hitting services twofold:

  • Customers are typically switching to more expensive methods of engagement, for example call centres vs. digital channels;
  • Customers are delaying (or even discontinuing) their engagement with the service, thus adversely affecting conversion rates.

Designing to mitigate the formation of doubt
So how can we design in such way as to mitigate or eliminate the effect that these moments of doubt can have in a service? The discussion around the design of cross channel ecosystems is vast but for the benefits of this blog post lets frame a “moment of doubt” for a customer as follows:

I am in an emotional state because what I am doing is really important to me. Here I am about to proceed with Action X. However, I notice that there is a discrepancy that is jarring with what I know about the system. If I get this wrong, Bad Thing Y is bound to happen. I have alarm bells going off in my head! Should I proceed?

When thinking about doubt in this way, three factors immediately appear as having an effect:

  • Consistency: This will be a critical factor in the likelihood of a moment of doubt forming. Inconsistency across channels in terms of interaction design patterns, terminology and visuals will always set alarm bells off as they naturally imply a difference between what a customer has done before and what a customer is doing now. Differences subconsciously imply that I may be doing the wrong thing!;
  • Clarity of process: Am I aware of the next steps in the process with which I am engaged? Being aware of the bigger picture is critical to a customer when they are experiencing a moment of doubt. It enables a customer to better rationalise the potential consequences of proceeding. It enables a customer to start to ask themselves if their concern is a showstopper that absolutely requires clarification, a minor inconvenience or not a problem at all.
  • Feedback: If I have experienced a moment of doubt during my journey through the service, it is the application of well designed feedback that will alleviate my fears. Good feedback provides that reassurance that we are seeking whenever we feel unsure. Likewise the lack of good feedback is likely to result in an unnecessary channel shift as the customer seeks assurance that they have done the right thing (Avoidable Customer Contact to use the parlance of a call centre manager I have been working with).

My intention with this blog post has been to explore the idea that there maybe value in making a distinction between moments of confusion (“how do i do this?”) and moments of doubt (“I am uncertain whether to proceed”) within a service.

In my opinion, the successful mitigation of moments of doubt would require a holistic service view to be taken in order to identify the interplay between channels. Moments of doubt would appear to be highly contextual in nature as they are inherently made up of a customers wider fears about what it is that they are trying to do. Therefore, your customers doubts will likely be formed based on their perceived interplay of your entire service rather than just the channel they find themselves in at the time.

If this is the case then this leads me to question if most service providers have the level of cross channel understanding required to successfully mitigate these risks?

Somehow I doubt it.

Thanks for reading!

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5 thoughts on “When in doubt: Minimising uncertainty across a service

  1. I think you’re right to make the distinction between confusion and doubt, and it’s good to read a thoughtful piece on this because I think the latter gets very little attention in UX. Perhaps this is because doubt is very hard to address, or even to detect.

    I sometimes wonder whether a significant part of doubt lies in poorly-chosen vocabulary though. It’s so easy for businesses to slip into industry jargon or try to create their own words for things. One obvious example that to my knowledge is never explained to people is the word “sync”. Does “to sync” mean “to copy”? So if I sync the contents of my phone to the cloud, then delete something off the phone, does it remain in the cloud? The only way of finding out is by trial and error because sync is never explained. The same is true for “like”, “share” and most other single words or phrases that confront you in your interactions with digital things. “Be the first to like this”, “tag”, “aeroplane mode”, “create playlist” – vocabulary that forces you to leap in the dark.

    • Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed the post.

      I think your right about the vocabulary point. To me, choice of vocabulary is a critical component and its inconsistent use is often a primary cause of customer doubt.

      Will look into that “sync” example, never thought about it before.

      Keep reading!

  2. I think this an excellent thought piece Jon and highlights some real challenges when encountering doubt during the customer journey. I think everyone has probably experienced “pauses” when clicking through a process because of doubt, so I like the “Designing to mitigate the formation of doubt” section because it highlights some sensemaking issues, which sometimes produce ‘a rabbit in the headlights’ effect in the flow of interaction with an online service system. One of the functionalities I always recall being delighted by, in Adobe software design, was the endless undo’s (in Adobe illustrator) or history (Adobe Photoshop) which allows you to undo and redo, which allows control. On the web sometimes the lack of control and choice (anticipating the need for a user to understand the consequences of their actions) is what can create doubt.
    @Johnathan’s observation has particular resonance for me. ‘like as your page’ on FaceBook comes straight to the front of mind… Wha?

  3. When you consider the accessibility angle, the problem becomes magnified. For example, someone with a cognitive condition that makes it difficult to process jargon or inspecific instructions may find the differences between channels X and Y insurmountable.

    @Jonathan makes a good point about vocabulary. The Facebook like or Google +1 are good examples. Should you like/+1 something if the original status contains bad news? Is it a show of support,or do you appear to be inappropriately cheerful about the original status update?

    Good questions to be thinking about. Thanks Ergonjon.

    • Thanks for the comments, as I was writing the piece I realised it was going to be difficult to address everything. I’m sure I will return to the topic later in more depth.

      @curiosityjunkie I think your right to use the phrase “lack of control”. It’s absolutely what I have witnessed in the test lab.

      @leonie Great point as always, particularly regarding the cognitive disability angle. Regarding other disabilities I believe the cross channel is becoming even more problematic. Recently I witnessed a web based service that was completely inaccessible due to flaws in the system design in the physical world. The website itself worked well.

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