User Experience Medallions: fixing real problems with small solutions

On a recent trip to the East Coast, we took a tour of a church built in the mid-1830s. Of its many architectural details one, in particular, was pointed out by our guide: a round molding on the ceiling above where the chandeliers hung. It was attractive but minimal. It’s called a ceiling medallion.

These days, ceiling medallions are decorative accents for hanging lights or fans, but two hundred years ago these tiny details served an important purpose. When the church was built, the only light source in the evening was candlelight. As candles burn, soot rises to the ceiling – and stays there. Depending on the location of the candles and the shape of the ceiling, smoke could easily blacken the entire area over the course of weeks or months. For the interior of a home or church, the ceiling would need cleaning on a regular basis.

The rings are there to catch the soot and prevent it from spreading when it reached the ceiling. Just a small raised edge, no more than an inch or two in profile and the diameter of the chandelier below was enough to turn an enormous cleaning job into a contained problem. The solution is a technological innovation, elegant in its simplicity, and appropriate for its context.

For me, that’s what a feature should aspire to be. Innovative, simple, appropriate.

User Experience Medallions

When people struggle to use a website, it would be easy to think of the problems they encounter as “their own fault.” They should understand the site better, why are they not looking in the right place? But to blame them would be like blaming the ceiling for getting covered in candle soot.

Our job is to understand and respect their problems, so we can look for ways to mitigate them. When we do that, they trust us more, we connect with them, and everyone wins.

I like to think of these little changes that we make as “UX Medallions.” Like their architectural namesake, these tiny interventions make a real difference for the people who use them. Potentially big, dirty problems are sidestepped entirely. We should always be on the lookout for opportunities to improve the systems that we’ve designed. If there are bottlenecks or barriers to entry, we can design solutions to remove them. And better still, they don’t have to be big new programs to have a meaningful impact. In fact, it’s sometimes better when they’re not.

This little detail offers an excellent metaphor for design thinking in many contexts. Let’s explore a student interaction online as an example.

illustration blonde girl on phone taps

A prospective student with a problem

Let’s imagine an industrious, eager potential student that has come to your .edu website and wanted to schedule a tour. Sadly, she just can’t find what she’s looking for.

She’s stuck. What might she do in this situation? A few options are obvious next steps:

  1. Continue to search
  2. Fill out a contact form
  3. Call the school or department
  4. Visit the school without an appointment
  5. Abandon her search

Depending on this students determination, it’s easy to imagine any of these scenarios playing out. But some are more likely than others, based on what we know about our prospects. Here’s the same list, with some additional perspective about why each solution might fail.

  1. Continue to search. Maybe she can use the search functionality on the site if there is one. She’s probably not enthusiastic about digging around much longer. Even in determined individuals, patience dwindles quickly in online searches. Google has trained us to expect easy answers.
  2. Fill out a form. Maybe she’ll fill out a form asking for more information, but how long will it take to get a reply? She doesn’t want to be bombarded with other marketing emails. She’s turned the corner and is now entering the consideration stages of her application journey, and waiting may not be ideal.
  3. Call the school. There may be a department admissions contact on the site, and she could pick up the phone and call. She may have to navigate a phone tree or wait on hold to find the right person. And talking on the phone is scary.
  4. Drive down to the school. Without an appointment, it’s not likely that anyone will be able to give our student a tour. She really wants to be shown around and ask questions. This would get her down there, but she wants to know she’ll get some help when she arrives.
  5. Abandon her question. Some people will abandon the search, and move on to other sites, social media, or offline. They’ll try again later – or never.

How can we help her?

All of these solutions require more effort than she’s already invested. Would it have been better if what she needed was already on the website? Of course. But you can’t anticipate every need and those who try to end up bloating their websites beyond usability.

Instead, we need a solution that reduces the pain of her remaining options. We want her to feel like the benefit of getting her question answered is high compared to the effort it will take to make it happen.

To help her, we can change the real circumstances of the problem (by making it easier to get information) or her perception of the problem (by making it FEEL easier to get information). Both are completely valid from a user experience point of view – her situation would improve if we were able to help with either.

Solving the problem

At this point, it’s helpful to examine the issues and options we listed above. Some of them we have a lot of control over, and some are completely outside our ability to influence. Is there one or two that we could “nudge” with a minor change that would help this student feel better about reaching out?

There are lots of good answers to that question; this is just one of many: What about a “click-to-call” button integrated into the website?

Click-to-call is an innovative, simple, appropriate solution. Instead of just showing a phone number, it provides a way for a user to request a call online without switching from browsing to dialing. A user clicks the link, and a popup asks for your name and phone number. You enter your number, and you’re notified that you’ll receive a call shortly. (This is a standard feature on e-commerce and financial institutions websites.)

On the institution’s side, someone at their desk gets a call from the digital operator, informing them a student would like to speak with them. The call is automatically connected, and no one had to dial out. It’s convenient and time-sensitive.

But how does this solution respond to the problems we outlined earlier? Especially with encouraging our prospect to pick up the phone?

  • It removes the frictional cost of switching the app and dialing. This seems like a small hurdle, but it doesn’t take much to deter someone who doesn’t like to talk on the phone anyway.
  • Our prospect doesn’t need to transfer your phone number to her phone. Instead, she just types in her own number, which she already knows. That’s easy. Easy is good.
  • It means the prospect doesn’t have to wait on hold for you to be available. This turns the tables by making her time a priority.
  • It establishes a system that a user feels confident is being monitored, increasing trust and brand perception.
  • It allows the institution to train individuals and direct the call to appropriate people immediately, removing painful phone trees.

Bonus: you may have noticed our prospect just gave you her name and phone number, allowing us to improve our data collection and segmentation online. We can personalize content, track and optimize her interactions, and more. Your enrollment team is delighted. You’re so smart.

This isn’t really about “click-to-call”

I love click-to-call. It’s innovative because it leverages existing technology without requiring a user to get out their phone or switch to another app. It’s simple because it doesn’t require any human initiative, especially on the part of the user institution to take action while the user goes about her business. It’s appropriate because we’re trained to expect a high level of service from organizations.

But click-to-call is just an example. We could have found another solution that would improve our email, or connect our prospect with our alumni network, or ask her to comment if she had found what she was looking for. The point is, this real pain has solutions that leverage current technologies in simple ways.

To uncover these problems and opportunities, we use tools like customer journey maps and empathy maps to put ourselves in the shoes of our users. With the perspective that no problem is too small, it’s easy to find ways to “lighten the load” for them and make their experience more pleasant. And as we make that journey easier for them, the outcomes that we care about like application and retention improve.