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Low-effort knowledge part 1: for customers

User effort is key to the adoption of self-service knowledge. The goal of self-service is for users to find the information they need without escalating their enquiry to a contact centre, thus reducing pressure on agents and lowering costs. This goal can be achieved only if self-service is genuinely easier than calling the contact centre.

First, the self-service knowledgebase must contain the information the user wants. Second, it must disgorge the information quickly and easily, without frustrating the user with unhelpful responses so they end up shouting down the phone instead.

An effortless self-service experience equals a satisfied customer. Just as importantly, each effortless experience contributes to the long-term success of your 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 knowledgebase healthy and up to date, maintaining its relevance to your customers. This makes the usability of self-service knowledge a key factor in return on investment.

The single biggest driver of customer satisfaction, by far, is ease.”

General Manager, Group Customer Strategy, BMW UK

View the BMW user story here

Why User Effort Matters

Ease of use directly impacts the bottom line. It particularly affects long-term adoption of self-service, since while executive decisions can put knowledge management in place, only participation by customers can make it a success. Let’s consider two hypothetical self-service portals. The Green Widget Company and the Blue Widget Company buy knowledge management systems from different vendors, at similar cost. The Green Widget Company’s portal requires low effort. It quickly and consistently delivers the right answers with minimal input by the user. The Blue Widget Company’s portal, on the other hand, is frequently inaccurate and requires users to make multiple attempts to find their answer (if they find it at all). Which company gains more from its investment?

Green Widgets are Go

Because Green’s customers can answer their enquiries easily online, most make self-service their channel of first choice. The number of enquiries reaching Green’s contact centre 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. Customers, meanwhile, can get on with their day and aren’t made cranky by waiting in telephone queues. CSAT scores increase.

The high traffic on the self-service portal provides knowledge editors with a continuous stream of feedback, in the form of both comments from customers and statistics of knowledgebase use. This feedback helps editors refine the knowledgebase 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 knowledgebase becomes more valuable to users.

Blue Widgets are Blue

The Blue Widget Company launches its self-service portal with a flourish, directing customers there through links on its home page and messages on its phone system. Customers, however, find it hard to use. Knowledge retrieval is unintuitive and untrustworthy; it returns inaccurate results and requires the customer to rephrase their search repeatedly in the hope of finding the right thing. Many customers give up after a few attempts, and either call the contact centre or abandon their transaction altogether. The initial surge of traffic to the knowledge portal diminishes as customers realize self-service is unlikely to help them.

Meanwhile, content editors know the knowledgebase is failing but aren’t sure how it can be fixed. Adding more content won’t help if the system can’t find the content that already exists. With low customer traffic and little scope for iterative improvements, the knowledgebase becomes ossified. Content isn’t updated. The number of calls coming into the contact centre doesn’t change much.

Management soon forgets about the problem. The company implemented its knowledgebase mainly to tick a box; it didn’t devise a long-term knowledge management strategy or plan how the project’s success would be measured. The knowledge portal remains online, but use of it is desultory.

What Determines User Effort

At the start of their project, the only difference between the Green and Blue companies was that they bought their knowledge management systems from different vendors. Green’s system was more intuitive for users. Could Blue have chosen better?

Usability tends not to be a major consideration when buying software. 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 the software, 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 AI.

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 knowledgebase’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 helps the user find what they want easily.

Measuring User Effort

So how do you tell how much effort users put in? Effort is a matter of perception and can vary from person to person. Some factors that influence effort can be evaluated objectively; others are more subjective, and require you to assess 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 your users. Conduct user research in which you observe people performing everyday tasks. Note points at which they hit difficulties or get frustrated.
  • Mine your statistics. Knowledgebase 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?

The Other Side

So you and your vendor have created an effortless customer experience. But there’s another side to knowledge management: the back end, where editors create content. Effective content management is vital to making the knowledgebase a success. Do editors find it easy to create content, or is it a cumbersome chore they try to avoid? The usability of the back end is no less important than that of the front.

The second post in this series discusses how to reduce effort for editors in the back end.

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