The face of customer service is rapidly changing from a friendly smile or voices on the phone to a something a little more “square” and electronically powered — generally known as a screen. I can’t even remember the last time I stepped foot inside a bank — at least not farther than the atrium with the trusted ATM — and I’d be lost as to what to do once I got inside. And who wouldn’t agree that making a quick transaction on the Internet — whether it’s doing a banking transaction, placing an order, or finding some information — beats calling and dealing with annoying automated voice systems that take forever before you can ever hear a human voice?

But as you may have experienced, it can be a frustrating to travel down an automated road that still ends up in an aggravating phone call to complete your task. It’s no wonder that we avoid the web and cling to trusted people on the other end of the phone (even if they are hard to get to and sometimes hard to deal with) if talking to them means accomplishing our task.

Interconnected challenges for customers and businesses

So how do you successfully create a self-service website that meets the needs of the business and the customer at the same time? We were faced with this challenge on a recent project. We were tasked with re-designing a self-service website so customers would use it to complete some business process transactions instead of calling their service representative. Of course we started out by going out into the field and observing the customers with Contextual Inquiry interviews. One of the interesting findings was that many customers didn’t even know much about the work they could actually do on the current website. Moreover, there were lots of holes in their processes that weren’t being supported coherently online. There was also the simple fact that the service representatives are trusted to get the job done accurately and efficiently and their personal interaction is highly valued by the customers. Add in some usability and technical issues and we had a challenge on our hands.

Along with these challenges from the customers’ perspective, this business — like many others — faced an internal set of challenges. As more routine tasks are completed successfully on the web, it’s the more complex calls that filter through to service representatives. More complexity requires a more sophisticated level of knowledge by the representatives so they can handle the more complex situations. It also necessitates a need for easy-to-access, usable support materials. And these materials need to be available to the customers on the web. This means businesses now need to take on the potentially unfamiliar role of a publishing house.

Finally, customers have high expectations of the site, what they want to accomplish there, and of the service representatives, when they do have to call. It is important for the representatives to be able to see and understand what the customer has already done and where they are in the process to provide them with the best support.

Mission: creating a better design

How did we overcome all these challenges? By making sure we adhered to the following basic best practices for designing a self-service website.

What do customers really need?

First and foremost, start by understanding the customers’ needs and the work they are actually willing to do on the site. Contextual Inquiry field interviews are the best way to help you gain insight into the work your customers are actually doing and their intents behind the work. Analyzing their needs helps make it apparent that you can’t just take your internal system, used by service representatives, and make it available for customers who undoubtedly have different needs and usability issues with the system, no matter how well it may work for employees.

Watch your language please!

The language you use in your system matters. Acronyms and internal jargon — much of which may be invisible to you — are not likely to resonate with customers and impedes their ability to use the site. Using language that customers understand and letting them use their own words to talk to you greatly increases the chance that customers will successfully complete tasks on their own on your site.

Prototyping before you build helps to refine any language issues you might uncover and then you will know exactly what to call every function, button, etc. This point is illustrated by an issue we had about how to label some buttons, and whether we needed separate buttons for two similar functions. Instead of endlessly discussing it, we used our best guess. Then we went out with paper prototypes showing one option and found through three rounds of testing that only one button was needed and what the best words were to describe it.

Take it one step at a time

Don’t be in a rush to deliver your entire new design in one release. Not only will you overtax your developers, you will probably overwhelm your customers. Prioritize to roll out the design in coherent chunks, giving ample time for customers to adjust and become familiar with it, and to allow for any adjustments necessary to smooth the design out as you go.


No matter what, there will still be times when customers require live human assistance. Make it as easy as possible for them to escalate their needs seamlessly their through the system and get help. If customers can get live help and service representatives know what the situation is, then customers’ frustration levels can be kept to a minimum and they will develop trust in the system. Customers’ need to know they can get help if they need it.

Work it

Now that you have your self-service site up and running, the work shouldn’t stop there. Monitoring and tracking the site’s usage and feedback is key to managing the customer experience. Use the information gathered to target and market to specific audiences who will feel like you really understand their needs. You can then use this information to augment and refine your site to keep in pace with changing functional and information needs over time.

If we keep these ideas in mind, the end result is a happy one. Customers will be comfortable and competent in helping themselves. And they will likely be returning customers. For businesses, customer service can become a highly valued second line help and provide new ways to connect to and build relationships with customers on a regular basis.


Marcia Bales, “Helping Customers Help Themselves, How self-service is changing the support environment and boosting customer satisfaction,” 15 March, 2004, (February 22, 2006).

Allen Bond, “Best Practices for Solving the Self-Service Paradox, How to provide a system that meets the needs of both your company and your customers,” 13 September, 2004, (February 22, 2006).

Genevieve Peterson and Vanessa Gaw, “NativeMinds Brings Virtual Reps into the Frontline of Web Customer Service with Debut of NeuroServer 3.0,” (February 22, 2006).