I had been HUD’s web manager for 8 years before I actually watched someone use our website during usability testing. We had won awards for our customer-friendly content, and I was just so sure that we had most of it right. Then I watched 3 people struggle to find the answers to, what we thought were, simple tasks. And – bingo – I had that “ah-ha!” moment. It wasn’t just that I spotted some problems to fix. I became a better customer service provider when I realized that I never, ever should assume I know my audience completely – that they always have things to teach me about what they want and need and how they think and behave, and I must always listen to them, respect them, and follow what they teach me.
We did some guerilla usability testing of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service website, during the training I did there two weeks ago. It wasn’t pretty – we had 30+ people in the room watching the volunteers try to perform the tasks, and I made a couple of flubs in the instructions. We didn’t tape it, so we had to rely on people’s memories and notes when we discussed it. But it worked. Big time.
We did the testing on the second day of the training session, after they’d heard me yammer on about plain writing and top tasks and usability principles. I think – up to that time – I had won over many of them…but not all. And then we had 3 people come into the room and try to perform 5 basic tasks on the DFAS website. Honestly, I could feel the class members’ thought waves practically screaming at the test volunteers to, “just click on it…just click there…that’s it…what are you waiting for?” as they watched people struggle with the words and choices they were offered. After the volunteers left, the room came alive with insights and ideas. It wasn’t just that they identified specific problems to fix. It was that “ah-ha!” moment when they realized that they have more to learn about – and from – their customers. That’s when they became a real customer service web team.
We used to think we had to hire a usability professional to do usability testing, that we had to find volunteers with specific demographics, and that we had to get access to a usability lab, to do it right. Don’t get me wrong – if you’ve got the money and access to those tools, do it. But Steve Krug, in his new book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, debunks the myth that you have to be scientific to learn what works – and what doesn’t – from your customers. As few as three volunteers – and they can be almost anyone, in almost any setting – will do the trick. Anyone – yes YOU – can do it. In fact, here’s a simple script you can use.
Definitely do all the reading you can about plain language and top tasks and usability principles. Talk about it with colleagues. Go to training and conferences. Practice what you learn. But if you really want to get smart about customer service, watch 3 people use your website. Go for that “ah-ha!” moment. I promise you – it will put everything into perspective, and you’ll be a better customer service provider.