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When the Least-Worst Outcome is the Best

Making an intentional bad experience as good as it can be using Human Centred Design

We have all experienced the pain and effort of processes imposed on us. For example, drawn out cancellation and refund processes when something has not gone to plan, or intrusive and complex identification processes. Unfortunately, there are increasing numbers of “bad actors” who are hacking databases or looking to scam and defraud consumers. In reaction to these risks, organisations are adding more security, tightening ID checks and putting stringent controls around many processes. They are adding more of these “intrusive” processes that put customers to work.

The irony of these situations is that all customers are having to endure more effort and painful experiences because of the actions of a very small minority. In “Your Customer Rules” we wrote about “allowing and isolating exceptions” and “not tarring everyone with the same brush”. The idea was that if only 5% of customers or transactions needed a check then try and find ways to let the other 95% bypass that check. Many of the processes we experience today do the opposite. For example, we put all customer transactions through extensive security checks although less than 0.1% may have a fraud risk.

We understand the issue. The brand and reputational damage of paying money to the wrong customer or sending private information to the wrong person is significant. A “risk-based” design mandates extra checks and increases customer effort. At one bank they had one instance of a customer statement sent to the wrong customer. To keep the regulator happy, that one mistake meant that all subsequent emails of this type had to be double checked. This added cost for the business and slowed the process for customers. It still wasn’t foolproof, but it kept the regulator happy.

We will explore how to minimise these overheads and use Human Centred Design principles to try and minimise the pain and find the “least-worst” answer to these situations.

We’ll cover four ideas:

  • Re-thinking the process to isolate the pain of these bad experiences

  • Using Human Centred Design to minimise the pain of the experience

  • Selling the pain by being transparent

  • Prepare for the predictable but problematic exceptions

1. Re-think the Process to Isolate the Painful Experiences

Many organisations compound the damage of experiences that are painful for customers by being even more risk averse about when they are needed. For example, many organisations perform ID checks at the start of every contact (call, chat, email etc) regardless of the customer’s need. This is the lowest risk path - in theory. However, there are likely to be many scenarios where identity checks aren’t needed at all such as “when’s my bill due?”. The customer may also convey information that negates the need for the checks. For example, the customer may describe recent transaction history that only they can know or provide information about a previous contact that only they can have experienced. In those examples, identity checks are superfluous, and the risk averse path is damaging the experience and wasting time. A well-designed process will make it possible for a portion of customers to bypass the risk mitigation steps rather than applying blanket rules.

The less we can apply the exception treatment to customers where it isn’t needed, the better. We find this may mean trusting front line staff more to take rule-based decisions on when to skip a process and making the rules very clear. Technology, well applied, can also help. Some businesses have rolled out technologies like biometric identification (speech and facial recognition) so that the technology can remove some of this effort. Others use cookies and call line identification to perform security checks in the background.

2. Minimise the pain through Human Centred Design

Human Centred Design looks at simplifying the process and making it low effort. Sometimes that’s as simple as looking at the process from the customer’s perspective. For example, complex application forms and web designs often capture the information the company wants first and then asks, what we call ”knock out questions”, at the end of the process. There is nothing more frustrating than completing 20-30 questions only to find that question number 31 shows that you don’t qualify for the process or product and wasted your time! An HCD perspective looks at the process through the customer’s eyes by turning the process “outside in”. Another great example of pain minimisation is pre-population of forms. In many processes, organisations ask customer to complete forms (physical or digital) including information already held like contact details. Very few pre-populate the forms with the information they already know to make it easy for the customer. In many ways this is lazy technology and process design, but it is a delight for customers when organisations make this easy and ask for confirmation rather than “start from scratch” with blank forms. It's another example of applying HCD principles.

3. Sell the pain (be transparent) – this is going to hurt

A high effort process can be made to feel a bit better for the customer if it is explained and to a certain extent sold to them. Let us compare the emotional reaction to two ways of getting information from customers:

Option 1:

“I just need to check some details before we can proceed. Please can you confirm …”

Option 2:

“To protect your privacy and prevent fraud, please can you confirm some details for me…

The two options aren’t that different but the second “sells the process” and explains to the customer how they benefit from their effort. It is also more transparent about what the customer is going to go through. Given the heightened customer awareness of fraud and data breaches, customers are more likely to be supportive of these controls but may need to be reminded why some of these painful processes exist.

Many organisations also use any contact to “confirm details” they have on file such as email addresses or third-party authorities. Often these processes aren’t explained and permission isn’t sort. For example, a customer centric process would:

a) not perform these extra data validation checks until the customer has achieved their objective

b) get the customer’s permission and make it transparent “do you have time just to check some details we have on file for a further minute?”

This kind of transparency and customer centric design show that the business really does value the customer’s time (see the chapter on “Value Me” in Your Customer Rules (2014).

4. Prepare for the predictable but problematic exceptions

With tighter security and increased use of multi factor authentication, there are an increased number of scenarios that create painful customer experiences. For example, loss or breakage of a smart phone makes many apps and security processes very complex as the device was a key part of the process. Family members sorting out the affairs of a bereaved relation have to jump through hoops, and broken computers or mobile devices often cause effort to restore account status. All these scenarios are predictable and relatively common, but many organisations have invested little in making these difficult situations less painful. These may represent only a small percentage of interactions, but they are very memorable for customers because they are already dealing with the stress of bereavement or a broken device.

Many current technologies such as taking photos of things or in some situations trusting the customer, should make these interactions far easier. They just need to be planned for and an appropriate process created. In this era of video conference and phone cameras, it should be easy to sight supporting documents without customers needing to jump through hoops. In several organisations we’ve recommended removing the need to sight death certificates particularly for “no risk” scenarios like relatives wanting to pay bills! It is relatively easy to plan for scenarios like “loss of device”, bereavement or temporary disability but many organisations don’t have this covered. It’s worth the investment to support customers at their time of need.


In this paper, we’ve explained the goal of minimising the pain of necessary, but customer hostile, experiences. We are happy to share more of the techniques we have found work well. If you’d like more detail, please feel free to get in touch at or call 03 9499 3550 or 0438 652 396.


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