Getting personal: Questions to enable a better customer interface

By John Jones

Key takeaways

  • Websites should be designed for customer ease, but often their navigation prioritises business messaging instead.
  • Interfaces that mould around a customer’s needs and desires could provide far better experiences and increase satisfaction.
  • By asking simple questions, true motivation can be surfaced offering the real insights needed to provide customers with what they want.

Despite all the talk of personalisation, the interfaces we encounter as we surf the web are almost identical for everyone. We all navigate the same drop-down menus on shopping sites and get sent to the same product pages.

In some instances, a site will give us so-called ‘personalised’ content, such as recommendations based on choices or purchases we have made in the past. But actually, it isn’t really personal, and it isn’t really that different. It’s akin to living in the same style of apartment as everyone else with companies simply changing pictures on the wall.

Searching to buy

In fact, usability studies conducted on popular websites suggest that the way people use sites is often very different from the way they are designed to be used.1 

Long, scrolling side menus full of categories and subcategories that are common on consumer goods sites would suggest that customers take a methodical top-down approach to finding products. In reality, most people go straight to the search bar (or end up there in frustration) because these categories are cumbersome, not always obvious, and more often than not overwhelming in their amount of information.

A cynic would say that such navigation mostly serves to make the point that ‘if you want it, we will have it’. But the same outcome could be obtained with a clean and simple site that focuses on user intent without the frustration of trying, and failing, to find an item categorised infinitum with millions of other potential products.

Simplicity works because function should follow form; user experience and desire should shape the usability of the website. For example, Google’s search function has remained plain and simple since its inception — there is no ambiguity as to where a user should go on the site, and what they want — search results — are just one interaction away.

A store that creates itself for you

What if we allowed simple questions and interactions to create experiences specifically for the user? For example, what if a customer looking for kitchenware went to a consumer goods site and, after entering the search term ‘kettle’ found that the navigation menus then only showed kitchenware items. The site could essentially become a housewares store until they searched for something in a different category.  

Instead of the user doing the work, the site does the work for the user, highlighting useful information instead of expecting them to hunt for it. The more a customer searched in one particular category, the more permanent it could become in their personal navigation.

This principle could also work based on which stage a customer is at in their life. Depending on the user, relevant categories could appear and others fade into the background. Memory studies indicate that humans can only hold three-to-five objects in our working memory at any one time — making most of our current online experiences impossible to take in.2 Giving people hundreds of objects and lines of text is counter productive if they literally can’t recall them. 

Where to start

Keeping the idea of enabling personal experiences in mind, sites could instead begin their user experience by allowing customers to ask a question. An open-ended entry point such as ‘what would you like to do?’ or ‘what are you looking for?’ allows potential customers to control their experience, and at the same time give valuable (and actionable) insight into what they need and how they associate with your brand.

For example, in banking, a customer may not choose a particular brand because of its products or services; it could be that they picked a bank because it is next to their favorite coffee shop or is open after 6pm on Saturdays. Accessibility and convenience could be what they value above all else, offering valuable information on how to keep and attract more customers who think similarly. We find that while companies do a lot of analytical work around customer acquisition, they very often don’t ask the real questions.

Taking experience even further, imagine if a potential customer spilt coffee on his or her shirt and needed a new one, quickly. Brand may not matter, but experience could. What if they could pick up a new shirt nearby? And what if, knowing that they may also want another beverage, they were shown retail stores near coffee shops?

The best retail sales people can ask you two questions and narrow down your search to just a few products. For instance, in looking for a new TV, a shop assistant asking ‘How big?’ and ‘Do you watch sports?’ can then narrow down the options from hundreds to just a few. Those two questions, while simple, have many details built into them — refresh rate, size of room, possible number of people viewing, distance from screen. They had almost nothing to do with products available and focused only on the customer’s needs.

Imagine if your online experiences started the same way. 

Flexibility in design

Streaming providers are coming closer to providing true personalisation based on interest. They have to because of their near endless content, and retaining customers is closely linked with their ability to narrow that choice. Still, there are many days when I scroll through the options more than I actually watch them. If I don’t even know what I want, I need my provider to fill in the gaps if they want me to stay. 

To create personalised experiences, we have to design sites and services that are fluid and can flex and change to a user’s preferences. For designers, this reinforces the need for a robust and flexible pattern library and content strategy so interfaces can be clean and consistent while creating themselves around the customer.

So next time you’re designing, or redefining, your customer platform, what if instead of asking ‘what do I want customers to see’ you simply asked them to tell you what they wanted, and then, miraculously, you showed them just that. Not only will they have a better experience and find something they desire enough to make a purchase, you’ll still be able to say that all-important phrase you wanted to tell them in the first place.

Yes, we have that and we can get it to you fast.

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