The Power of Pointing & Online Self-Service Customer Support

The Importance of Nonverbal Communication

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Nonverbal communication is remarkably rich. Studies, most famously by Albert Mehrabian, have shown thatfrom 60-90% of communication is nonverbal. Most of what we convey does not come from our words.

Unfortunately, when it comes to website customer support, we’re still firmly locked in a war of words, forcing end-users, already frustrated, to accurately articulate their problems via email, live chat, search terms, or over the phone. None of the nonverbal richness that humans are good at using and interpreting is available on the web.

Scientists have known for decades how powerful it can be to let people point at things when issuing commands or annotating. And how humans point with a mouse or finger is one of the most deeply studied areas of human factors with computers. But we still don’t leverage pointing as a nonverbal cue when it comes to helping people solve their problems online.

My co-founders’ research has shown that most of the confusions people endure when online are associated with something they see on the screen. That makes sense. After all, the screen is where people’s focus is when they’re trying to get something done. Why not let them point on the web to whatever is causing confusion? In a physical store, I can point to a sweater and ask, “How much will this shrink when washed?”, but on an e-commerce site, I can’t do the same thing. If I send a question to customer support, I have to name the sweater, perhaps include the product number, and worse still, do this away from the sweater itself. Worst of all, studies show that 57% of the time, if people can’t immediately get an answer to their question, they’ll abandon.

An Economy of Words

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People of all cultures refer to physical objects during communication with contextual words such as “this,” “these,” “those,” or “that,” which are usually accompanied by a physical action that identifies the thing in question. I may ask, “are you going to eat that?” and point with a finger or nod towards my wife's dinner plate.My words require my physical action to make sense, and as a result, I have to use far fewer words in the first place.

The economy of words enabled by pointing at things, what linguists call “deixis,” is a powerful benefit when it comes to online self-service customer support. The ability for an end-user can point to a product, feature, widget, or label on a website or web application and say, “Why is this here?” or “What is this?” is an incredibly powerful way to express confusion and indicate a specific need for help. Think of how many more words would be required without pointing. It is no surprise that people have a hard time describing their online help needs. Forcing people to describe their problems purely in text is a difficult burden to place on any end-user, and yet that’s exactly how online customer support operates today.

The Power of Pointing

Pointing also helps avoid confusion caused by differences in vocabulary. Pointing uses the interface itself as a way of establishing common ground between question-asker and question-answerer. If I can point to an element on the screen when asking a question, that removes the chances that I use a poor choice of words to refer to something. Without pointing, I might ask, “How do I upload photos?” but others might ask, “How do I add pictures?” and still others might ask, “How do I insert images?” All three questions mean the same thing but use different verbs and nouns. Although this is a simple example, more complex versions of the same issue arise all the time in customer support requests. Scientists have called this the vocabulary problem, and pointing solves it by directly referring to objects rather than trying to name everything with words.

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We do see the use of pointing in some packaged software today. Microsoft Word’s comment feature is a  good example of attaching comments to objects. 

Adobe Acrobat has sticky notes that serve the same purpose. Pen-based interfaces enable circling and annotating documents. But the web still lacks the ability to refer to things by pointing, and especially when it comes to helping people resolve their questions, asking them to put their problems into words is a very bad idea that results in limited success.

At AnswerDash, we bring the ability to let end-users point directly to objects on any website or web application when asking questions. By coupling pointing with words, question-asking is made easier and more direct, and answers are shown in context, right at the point of action. Pointing is powerful and AnswerDash was founded to bring the power of pointing to customer support, dramatically improving the user experience of websites and web applications, and reducing the burden on end-users to describe their help needs. The benefits? More sales, lower support costs, and happier customers who are more often successful on websites.