Complexity is a Self-Service Killer

The moment you enter McDonald’s the clock starts ticking. You want to get in and out as quickly as possible. You’re trying to fill a hole in your stomach without filling a hole in your pocket.

The moment you enter your favorite fancy restaurant you forget the clock entirely. You wait with pleasure and hours speed by. You’re having a great experience and you’re enjoying yourself and you’re not thinking too much about the cost. (You can fret about it when you get the next credit card bill.)

Self-service is about more speed and less human interaction. Speed and complexity are a combustible combination. Having to do something by yourself and complexity is not a good combination either.

If you walk into McDonald’s and the menu isn’t immediately obvious, that’s a problem. In a fancy restaurant, they can make it a little ritual to hand you the menu and explain all the French words.

In McDonald’s if there’s lots of stuff on the menu that’s going to affect queuing time and it’s going to annoy you because you don’t want to think, don’t want to read. We’ve seen tests of online menus where people were presented with simple and complex (wordy) menus. People stared at the complex menus more but could understand and remember them less.

Self-service is driven by a psychology of speed—fast in, fast out. Most self-service tasks are not life enhancing. They don’t fulfill you. Reading the book you just bought on Amazon might change your life, but the process of buying the book is not life changing. Self-service is about doing basic stuff. You might be about to design this amazing new product with the designer you found in the People Finder, but you’ve already forgotten about using the People Finder.

Self-service is nothing to write home about. Self-service is working smoothly when it’s invisible. It’s basic and humdrum, but the humdrum is essential. We don’t jump for joy every time we switch on the light, shouting: “Isn’t electricity amazing!” However, when we turn on that switch and the light doesn’t come on …

We read online like we’re driving down a motorway and reading the road signs. We scan, decide, turn. Online, we scan, decide, click. I had just landed at an airport and wanted to get the train to the city. I went down an escalator and at the bottom was a sign with three words, all beginning with the letter T. What were they?

Think about it. You’ve been on a flight and you want to catch the train. The first word was Trains, the second, Tickets, and the third, Toilets. Trains, Tickets and Toilets. That’s what we want from self-service. Clean, simple, concise.

If there were lots of signs and words at the bottom of that escalator then they would have all become a blur and I’d have kept walking. And if I could I’d have asked someone. When self-service becomes too complex we: a) ask someone, or b) give up, or c) make a mistake.

When self-service works then there are less calls to the Help center, more customers complete their tasks, and less mistakes are made. Self-service is wonderful. When it works. When it’s not being killed by complexity

Gerry McGovern is CEO of Customer Carewords, who methods of self-service task identification and simplification are used by Cisco, Microsoft, VMware, Google Search, etc.

Web Self-Service Management Principles & Business Case: A free e-book by Gerry McGovern


Gerry McGovern