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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Designing a service no one wants to use

Lets face it some kinds of services or products are not sexy and never will be. Completing your tax return, applying for a student loan, applying for benefits online. Sure they are important services that need to exist, but they will never be enjoyable for the people using them. No body ever woke up and said:

Today I am going to go online and fill out my tax return. Bring. It. On.

So as designers, what do we do when we find ourselves asked to improve the experience of such services? Our target audience does not want to engage with us, they find us annoying and bureaucratic. Our customers perceive us as a necessary evil to be completed as quickly as possible. For a while now I have been forming a way of thinking about how to approach the design of these, what I call, necessary evil services.

Value vs. Pain

Scott Jenson proposed a very succinct approach for thinking about experience that he calls the value vs. pain model. The simple model states that a user will use a product or service if the value obtained outweighs the pain of doing so. When designing necessary evil services it is easy to see how we minimise pain. The user experience design community has developed hundreds of tools and techniques for reducing pain in services and products.

But on the other side of Scott Jenson’s model is the elusive creature “value”. It could be argued that many necessary evil services have a high value to customers that will always out way the pain. How else could we explain the poor design that many Government and public sector experiences get away with ? Whilst this may be true wouldn’t it be nice if we could identify a method for adding experiential value beyond simply the successful completion of the service? What if customers completed their tax return and walked away with something extra?

Experience Realms

In their excellent book The Experience Economy (Seriously. Read it.), Pine and Gilmore (2011) proposed that an experience could engage a customer across a number of dimensions. Two particularly important dimensions proposed were:

  • Guest Participation: What is the level of participation that the customer has in the experience? Are they passive observers or active participants?
  • Connection: What connection unites customers to the experience? Is the customer’s attention engaged with the experience from a distance (absorption) or are they physically or virtually engaged as part of the experience itself (immersion).

By combining the dimensions of guest participation and connection then fundamentally four types of experiences can be defined.Four types of experience shown in a quadrant: entertainment, educational, esthetic, escapist

Pine and Gilmore’s Experience Realms from The Experience Economy (2011)

  • Entertainment: These are the kinds of experiences we are most familiar with as we passively absorb a stage performance, watch TV or listen to music;
  • Education: The customer is actively engaged in the experience in an effort to increase their knowledge. They are a form of interactive learner.
  • Escapist: These types of experience are much more immersive than traditional forms of entertainment, for example computer games or engaging in sports or gambling;
  • Esthetic: In an esthetic experience a customer is fully immersed in the experience but cannot have an effect upon it. For example, staring at a famous work of art or landscape, sitting in your favourite coffee shop reading. Essentially getting lost in the experience.

For a while now I have been interested by the combination of these experiential realms with the Value vs. Pain model. It seems to me that these experiential realms can be used to identify opportunities for designing on the “value” side of the fence.

Education as an experiential value add

Lets take the conversation back to designing necessary evil services. Typically audiences for these types of services are reluctant to engage and are desperate to finish quickly. Do they want to be entertained? Unlikely. If we try to design in such an element then we risk anger as much as engagement (believe me i’ve tried). Do they want to have an immersive experience whereby they simply “got lost in the moment with their tax return”? Weirdos! In my opinion there is only one viable option for adding experiential value in these types of scenarios: education.

How often have we seen services make, what appears to the end customer, crazy requests or non-sensical demands? How often does the flow of a website appear strange or repetitious? How often do services dictate obscure timescales with no rhyme nor reason for them (“Your application will be returned to you in 28 days”).

Often behind the scenes of these services there are genuine reasons for the design of the service being the way it is. For example, strict policy mandates, infrastructure limitations or inflexible legal requirements. Organisations expect customers of that service to understand all of these factors implicitly.

Customers of these types of services may not enjoy or want to use them, but in my experience they can obtain value by being educated in why things are the way they are. Where are the opportunities in your service or product that a customer can be educated about the situation with which they find themselves? Can you explain in more detail why it will take 28 days for their application to be returned? Can you explain why they are ineligible? Can you explain why they need to fill in more information as a result of their previous answers? Can you simply help them understand more about what it is in which they are engaged?

Incorporating sexy interactions or entertaining videos into your services may have an effect but when it comes to necessary evil services I have consistently seen the introduction of educational elements as having the greatest impact on the experience of the customer. Adopting an educational design perspective can:

  • orientate the customer and make them feel more in control
  • manage the customers expectations (after all you are the one setting them!)
  • empower the customer by making them feel more knowledgeable
  • aid the customers engagement with other touchpoints in the service

In my experience, designing educational opportunities into your service can be as big or small as you like. From deliberate structural changes to the flow of the system through to the simple addition of microcopy on website forms. I very much see the “educational value” as cumulative as a customer moves through the service.

The extent of this blog post has been framed around designing services that people don’t enjoy using. But looking beyond the design of nasty services for a moment, I am left intrigued by the simplicity of the experience realms and their potential to frame the positive, value adding, aspects of experiential design in general. Whilst as an industry we have numerous methods for identifying and reducing pain, many practitioners often struggle to frame the positive design directions that a product or service can be grounded in. So one final question from me would be this: What value can we as experience designers derive from this experiential framework?

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed what you read then please do share it, I’m always appreciative of the support.  You can also follow me on Twitter here.