“Design with users” is one of the Government of Canada’s Digital Standards. But how do you design with users when you’re under the pressure of tight deadlines and financial constraints?

A key part of building digital services that work for users is developing a good understanding of who your users are, what their needs are and how your service will impact their lives.

Are you working with your call centres?

Call centre agents are privy to the good stuff – all of your customers’ unfiltered complaints, grievances, praise, product blessings, and much, much more. They are an existing source of valuable insights from your many audiences.

Whether you run an in-house call centre or outsource your call centre to a trusted partner, agents are the key to harnessing customer feedback. Using this data can help you improve your web content and services with real people in mind.

Here is an example of how working with call centre staff helped us make quick content improvements to deliver better service on Canada.ca.

Call centre data is design research

At the end of March 2020, there were a lot of calls and emails coming into all call centres about Employment Insurance (EI) and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Very high volumes of calls were coming into the Government of Canada’s main 1-800 O Canada number and email managed by Service Canada.

The fact that call centres were swamped was making the news, as worried Canadians waited for hours to get help with their cases. This called for swift action.

Service Canada asked for help from the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) to improve their phone and email contact pages. The objective was to encourage more self-serve behaviour from people visiting the web site. They wanted to build on success we had had working on contact pages with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), in the hopes of reducing call volumes.

Swamped call centres don’t make anyone happy

We used the web analytics and call volumes in early April 2020 as a baseline measurement to help us understand if our interventions were working.

At that time:

  • call wait times spanned multiple hours, and many people couldn’t get through
  • email response time was backlogged beyond the standard 48-hour window
  • the Public Health Agency’s call centre was transferring hundreds of calls each day for CERB and EI topics (nearly 800 on April 1 alone)

Designing based on behaviour

The original page had a long alert at the top about call wait times and included links to other pages where answers could be found. We hypothesized that people weren’t really reading the long alert, and that they were reluctant to leave the contact page because they’d already decided they needed to contact someone. There was no incentive to search elsewhere for answers because there was a helpline phone number right in front of them.

We prototyped and tested two ideas.

First, we tried a much smaller alert banner at the top of the page. The original alert took more than a full mobile screen and included links away from the page. The new alert was a single sentence. It encouraged people to look at the information on the page for their answer before calling.

Second, we tried putting answers to the most-asked questions right at the top of the page, using the expand/collapse pattern. This way, people didn’t have to leave the page. They could expand only the answer they were actually looking for. Using the expand/collapse pattern meant we could keep the page short and simple, while providing the content that people needed most.

Testing these solutions showed positive results. People looked for the answers on the page and found them.

A long description can be found after the image.
Alert banner - before (over one full mobile screen)

Original alert banner text said "Contacting us during the COVID-19 pandemic" as the heading. It covered more than a full mobile screen, included a lot of text, several concepts and multiple links.

A long description can be found after the image.
We put answers to the most-asked questions right at the top of the page, using the expand/collapse pattern.

Immediately below the shortened alert banner, a series of 5 expand/collapse fields provide the answers to the top questions - like "If you received two payments of $2000."

Analyzing call drivers daily

Service Canada launched the new page design and then prepared to adjust the content regularly based on needs.

Each morning, Service Canada provided the project team with a list of the previous day’s top questions. We analyzed these to see if we could help reduce calls and emails by adding answers to common questions.

Each day we also used web analytics to see which answers people were engaging with the most. We looked for:

  • use of the expand/collapse sections of the page (these had additional details for specific tasks)
  • click-through rates for links to supporting content
  • emails sent via the contact form

By combining daily call centre data with web analytics, we were able to iterate and refine the answers the page provided.

After implementing this solution, we saw that only 17% of the visitors to the page submitted an email enquiry. That was less than half of the previous rate.

Quick design fixes to reduce call volumes

While we prototyped solutions for some of the more complicated call drivers, we also identified several quick fixes to the contact pages based on best practices and previous research.

Use these tips to help improve your contact pages.

1. Keep the alerts short and simple

As shown in the example above, the original page had two alerts that occupied more than a full mobile screen. The content of the alerts also included multiple links. Our revised alert succinctly explained the impact to the service and gave a single clear instruction to follow. These changes align with the Canada.ca guidance for warnings and service interruptions.

Canada.ca alerts and service disruptions

2. Put most requested items first

By shortening the alert text, the answers to top questions became visible on the first screen. Then we watched the analytics so we could respond quickly to what people were looking for. As we saw the needs changing, we changed the answers we included, and the order they appeared in.

3. Put wait times ahead of the phone numbers

To help reduce the volume of calls, we re-ordered some sections of the page. We put wait time information higher up and then moved information about how to call below answers to common questions. This encouraged people to try to find the answers on the web page first.

4. Give people answers where they are

When we ask people to follow a link to read more information, we place an extra burden on them. When they have a choice between selecting a phone number that is right in front of them or taking another step, most choose what is right in front of them. The extra step and effort of clicking a link can be enough to discourage them. Keep it simple for users!

When users have already made the decision to contact you directly, consider putting answers to top questions on a Contact us page.

Avoiding FAQs, with one exception (blog post)

Enacting change

“If the process to collect customer feedback is non-existent or poorly designed, your customers’ insights arrive at a dead-end. Agents may have the insights you desire, but there’s no process to deliver it up the food chain. This may seem a bit simple and obvious, but can be difficult to execute correctly.” – call centre agent, Service Canada

Web teams and call centres need to work together to improve service design. It all begins with enabling your agents to collect feedback and ensuring it can flow freely, uninhibited to management teams who can enact change.

Thank you, Service Canada, for taking swift action and being responsive to the changing needs of the public!

Final word

Make getting feedback from your call centres a routine practice. Work with the agents on a regular basis to understand the people using your site so you can deliver better services online.

The more closely you collaborate with your frontline call centre staff, the more you’ll understand where people are encountering frustration with your web content. Don’t wait until things are out of control. A swamped call centre doesn’t make anyone happy!

Learn more

Connect with the Digital Transformation Office at Treasury Board Secretariat