Why not just ask customer service?

When developing a new software application, product or web site, sometimes people think they can check for usability by bringing in the customer service folks and asking them what they think. After all, they talk to the users all the time-Customer service rep, image from http://www.sheervision.com/-shouldn’t they understand what the users need?

Customer service does understand what the users need. They talk to real users every day, and they know what questions get asked. Their input is invaluable in determining areas of focus. They know what’s selling, what’s not, and often they know just how many downloads of a certain product there have been and who downloaded it. They also know what’s NOT working because they get loads of questions about things that don’t work–and that is a great help for identifying usability issues. Ask a customer service person what questions they’re getting and how frequently and (if they track them) you’ll get some truly valuable feedback that will tell you:

  1. what functionality (and products) are needed
  2. hints at hidden user needs
  3. what people are having the most trouble with
  4. where there are bugs that need to be fixed

Absolutely, you should talk to your customer service folks and take everything they say very seriously. They are your most direct and frequent method of contact with your users.

So why do you need a usability person if you’ve got “user experts” already? 

The problem is customer service knows too much. They are experts on all the systems and the products, so it’s second nature to them how all your web sites and systems work. They know exactly which product is good for every type of situation. They know where all the functions and buttons are in every application and web site you have. The are the very best at explaining it all and helping users get their tasks done with the existing systems.They know everything inside and out. That’s their job. 

The user doesn’t have that expertise. 

That’s not the situation the user is in–the user probably doesn’t know (or care about) the system–they’re just trying to get some task done. The user doesn’t know the organization’s terminology, doesn’t know where all the buttons are on the web site, and may not even know what function they need to do to complete their task. An actual user can uncover problems that are completely invisible to customer service. That’s why customer service reps are often NOT effective usability reviewers. It’s very hard for humans to unlearn something we know very well, and the customer service person is the person who knows it the best. (That is not to say that customer service people can’t be usability analysts. As long as they have the ability to be objective, there’s no reason they perform effective and useful usability tests. I wouldn’t recommend solely relying on customer service for a usability review, however.)

Customer service has a conflict of interest. 

The other problem is that customer service may have a bit of a conflict of interest when it comes to usability. Their job is to help the user, so (in some cases) the customer service folks might actually not want the system fixed–after all, if the system is broken, it makes the customer service person more useful. And we all want to be useful (and employed). There may be an underlying (even unconscious) fear that they won’t be as useful or even a fear of losing their jobs if the system works so well the users can do it themselves.

So bring in the editors.

Expecting a customer service review to suffice for usability is akin to publishing a magazine article or a book without having anyone review, proofread or edit it first. The author of the article literally can’t see the mistakes–they need an outsider to find them. The same is true of usability. You need an outside view–real users, not inside experts–to find the usability problems.

And do the testing.

This is why usability testing is so critical, and why many folks recommend having an outside usability consultant conduct the testing. If you have someone that can step back from the design and look at the product, site, or system objectively, by all means have them review the product, site, or system. But then also bring in someone to test it with real users, someone who can formulate meaningful, real user tasks for a usability test, keep from prompting the user during the test, and who can analyze the results and identify places where users struggle. Designers and developers with a thick skin can do usability testing themselves. Customer service folks? Only if they can constrain their “helpful” side and let the user struggle through it on their own, and only if they realize that by making the products and systems more usable they create more business and opportunity for everyone (including themselves).

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