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If your user research feels incomplete, try talking with your customer support t...

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If your user research feels incomplete, try talking with your customer support team

They’re probably more than aware of where users are struggling

A man sitting at an office desk in business casual, smiling and having a headset on while looking at a laptop.

Photo by Olha Ruskykh: https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-wearing-headset-while-working-at-the-office-7504886/

Customer Support can be one of the most significant untapped resources for user feedback if you know what questions to ask them. I learned this when I couldn’t interview users for a product I was designing.

I was designing an application meant to assist cancer patients after their diagnosis. When doing so, I was informed that reaching out to individual cancer patients for interviews while representing my organization might break several federal laws.

After racking my brain for a solution, I found a resource that could provide valuable insights: I talked with customer support for our 1–800 line, which provided cancer patients with resources and people to talk with after a diagnosis.

They provided me with a wealth of data about our users and helped me design a better product. But figuring out what to ask them was a learning process.

You need to reach out to customer support, not vice versa

The simple fact is that Customer Support will rarely reach out to you: they’re often swamped with taking calls, and their job performance is often based on how efficient they are.

As a result, you need to reach out if you want to get information from them. One of the best ways of doing this is by mentioning how UX can help them. By getting their feedback and designing a better product, you can reduce the number of customer complaints they receive.

A cyclical diagram showing how UX helps Customer Support. The top bubble says “Better Product” with an arrow that points to “Fewer Customer complaints” in the right bubble. That bubble has an arrow pointing to “More time to answer”, which leads to the left bubble saying “Better, Faster, Answers” before circling back to “Better Product”.

How UX can impact Customer support

However, you must also prepare relevant questions to get the most out of your Customer Support team. A Customer Support team might deal with anything from dozens to hundreds of support tickets daily, so asking them to recall individual issues is a waste of time.

Instead, it can be helpful to use them to understand user insights often aggregated from their daily experiences.

However, there are three aspects that I wanted to highlight where Customer Support can often bring the most value for UX:

  • Validating personas and how to communicate with them
  • Providing a tagged/categorized ticket database
  • Understanding the most common complaints and issues users face

Communicating and validating personas

Customer Support representatives often deal with a wide range of users, which means they’re often the best people to run your persona by. They can check to see if the personas you’ve created for your users match what they see in their experiences.

In one case, Shopify designers asked their support colleagues to review personas to understand how they typically interacted with each persona and to get a clearer picture of the customer journey.

Doing so allows them to review where gaps in knowledge about the customer might be, as well as gaps in the current support experience.

Understanding the most common tagged/categorized tickets

Many customer support systems are designed with filters and categories in mind. For example, there may be a dropdown menu that provides many different categories to allow the customer support person to know why the user is calling in.

A dropdown menu that has a number of options when clicked. The top bubble says “Choose an option”, and the menu items that drop down when clicked say “I am having trouble logging in”, “I am running into technical issues”, “I want to cancel my account”, and “Other”.

A sample support ticket menu

As a result, this may sometimes be a valuable source of understanding where problem areas lie in your user experience. For example, if most of your customers are calling in for one specific area, such as Login, Checking out, or Onboarding, that can be a valuable place to start asking questions.

However, we shouldn’t make assumptions based on the type of data that comes in: the most crucial part of this process is interviewing (or shadowing) Customer Support members.

Interview customer support members to understand patterns

The most important thing you should do is seek out people that you can interview on the Customer Support team to ask.

It’s often the case that Customer Support representatives know what the problem areas or pain points users run into. After all, they’re the ones that are contacted as a result.

However, there are a few key things to keep in mind when talking with them:

  • Internal consistency is vital: Customer support often follows a script to narrow down what the user has tried and run into.
  • Their experience is with lots of users: They often walk hundred of users through the same process
  • They often have great ideas for feedback: After answering the same question hundreds of times, they’ve possibly thought about solutions.

So here are some questions you might want to ask them:

  • Do you see any easy opportunities for improvement (i.e., things that result in fewer customer complaints)?
  • Is the existing help/documentation useful?
  • What are the most common reasons users contact you?
  • What tasks are users trying to do when they call you?
  • Are there issues with the script you follow (i.e., is the script unclear to users)?
  • What are the most common tickets you receive around (“Login Issues”/Technical Support/etc.)?
  • Are there any menu items/button labels/etc. that mislead users?

The main point is to understand Customer Service’s daily perspective when interacting with users. This allows you to design something better instead of reinventing the wheel.

Please don’t reinvent the wheel: refine it with greater context

UX Research will not (and cannot) be replaced by insights from Customer Support: the main reason for this is that data is only about what people say (attitudinal), not what they do (behavioral).

But it’s a great way to avoid spending valuable user research time ‘discovering’ what Customer Support people could have told you immediately. It’s also a way to help refine the focus for other user research methods.

If you know users are struggling at a particular spot, designing tasks centered around those problem areas (and asking about those areas) can yield critical user insights. It’s also a great starting point, especially when triangulated with other user research methods.

So if you’re not quite sure about problems that users are facing, try reaching out to the Customer Support team. They often can provide you with crucial insights.

Kai Wong is a Senior UX Designer, Design Writer, and author of the Data and Design newsletter. His new book, Data-informed UX Design, explains small changes you can make regarding data to improve your UX Design process.


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