How SARS can improve their customer experience to make people happier

Customer experience (CX) is about the customer. It’s funny how often we forget this. It’s the point at which the customer interacts with the system. It’s the language used, it’s how easily a customer is able to learn to use a system and backtrack if they have made a mistake. It’s all this and more. CX is incredibly important because it will inform how people think and feel about your brand, product or service.

No one likes doing tax returns. It involves numbers and money, money which is no longer yours. Last week I had a rather shocking experience while dealing with SARS. I wanted to get ahead of the tax season and decided to register for e-filing. After filling in the forms the system informed me that I had to fax my personal documents to SARS.

As per instruction, I waited for my account to be activated but this never happened. I dialed into the SARS live chat facility to find out what the problem was. An agent dialed in and managed to be both insulting and demeaning in his interaction with me. He told me that I had not used the system correctly and that I had missed important information, which was in the footer of the page! This is the opposite to what customer centered design advocates.

Steve Jobs says it best:

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back towards the technology – Not the other way around”

SARS queues are longer than the road to enlightenment….

There were three lines outside of SARS. I gambled and stood in the second line, as it was the shortest. After about 20 minutes in the line, a SARS employee told me I was in the wrong line. I was currently in the middle of the second line but had to move to the back of the first line.

Inside I was directed to another line. Told to sit down behind 70 or so people, I was given a card with the number 153 on it. I sat waiting for my number to be called, wondering how long I would have to wait. I had to get back to work but I didn’t want to leave if it wouldn’t take too long.

Finally, after about an hour it was my turn. The person in the cubicle I was directed to did not make eye contact once. She seemed visibly annoyed at my request, as apparently I was in the wrong line. When refusing to join another line, she grudgingly helped me. Her refusal to help me, even though she was fully capable of doing so left me astonished. She completed my request, before I left I asked her if people complain about the queuing system. People did complain – in-fact they often complained. She explained that; “SARS has all the power here, so people have to wait to be helped”.

I was at SARS for 2 hours that day. 2 hours I had to take off work –  2 hours which could have been shortened by considering the experience from the customer’s point of view. Inefficiency effects everyone, especially the poor. Taking the whole day off is a large cost for people who are already struggling. I’m not trying to blame individuals, I’m merely thinking about how to create an environment where both SARS employee and everyday person can have a better experience.

Customer journey maps help visualise problems

Here is a customer journey map – a visual representation of my experience with SARS. It shows the emotional journey people experience. We use them at Deloitte Digital to help clients understand just what their customers go through.

Customer journey map – SARS


The issues highlighted in this piece are not insurmountable – they can be solved through better communication, considered managing of expectations, and improved guidance for customers.

SARS could focus on:

  • helping  people understand which forms they need when trying to register for e-filing;
  • tell people which lines they need to stand in.
  • allow people to upload documents for e-filing.

Improving processes make people happier, which make for more successful businesses.

User centred design and usability testing

The internet is rife with articles on usability testing, some are especially insightful and could likely help professionals conduct a good usability session. In venturing through these articles I realised that they largely neglect one of the most important, if not the most important, components of usability testing – The human being you are going to be speaking to in the usability session!

Imagine walking into a room with a stranger. They ask you to give your honest opinion while working through an interface which you have never seen before. They tell you the session will be recorded – you have camera’s in your face, with the stranger sitting next to you asking you in-depth questions about the interface; such as your opinion of the interface, it’s value and sometimes having this stranger lack empathy with this stressful situation.

The facilitator needs to have heaps of empathy, patience and drive a positive, judgement free environment. The long and the short of it is, if the participant is comfortable they are more likely to provide you with valuable information, which in turn benefits your product or service.

Here are a few pointers on becoming a more empathetic, engaging and caring facilitator:

Dress appropriately:

This is less dress to impress and more, dress appropriately for the target audience you will be talking to. I always dress down with younger participants and generally dress smartly when I am seeing higher ranking professionals.

Be a participant yourself:

It’s invaluable to be a usability participant at least once in your life. You realise how anxious you are about giving your opinion about an interface, not to mention that you don’t want to insult the person who created it. You may even find yourself apologizing if you feel you’ve made a mistake or didn’t quite understand something the interface was trying to communicate (ever so vaguely). So being in the “hot seat” requires an empathetic ear to guide you through the session. A great way to pave this relationship is to start with building a solid rapport.

Build solid rapport:

I enjoy spending some time at the beginning of the session getting to know the person I will be spending the next hour with. I ask them about what they do, and a few other questions about their lives to create a connection. This can be done by making eye contact, smiling, being warm and friendly. Remember, it’s your job to help the person feel as comfortable as possible during the session.

The more comfortable the participant is, the more likely they are to give you honest feedback, which is exactly why you are doing usability testing. Think about it, if you feel comfortable with someone you are more likely to tell them the truth about how you are feeling, especially what you like and don’t like.

Body language and tone of voice is extremely important. So sitting with your arms crossed and speaking very loudly is a rather bad idea. I always try to engage with people the way I would with a new friend. I am interested in what they have to say, I listen intently and I acknowledge when they speak. It is however important to note that you are not meant to influence the person’s conclusions. You can acknowledge what they have said but you cannot confirm or deny this opinion, as this runs the risk of skewing results.

Be careful about confirmation bias:

Confirmation bias is when you set out to prove your hypotheses, you drive conversation towards proving what you believe to be true and therefore skew the results. You may think a design or function solves a problem and drive conversation towards finding proof for this assumption. Open ended question are your friend. They allow participants to make up their own mind rather than being coaxed into giving information they feel they ought to give.

Create a calm environment:

Be a friend, not an authority figure. You are going on this journey with the participant. You are working through all of the complicated/delightful things together. Be a shoulder to cry on, be part of the frustration, and be empathetic about the experience. If you are having a bad experience with an interface no one would like a comment such as “chin up” or “get over it”. Show that you care by asking questions and listening carefully to what is being said.

Are you hungry?

Let’s be honest, when you are hungry or thirsty you are not going to be able to give your best at whatever it is you are trying to do, I know that the word “hangry” resonates with most people i’ve spoken to. The same goes for people in the usability session. I’m not saying serve them up a steak, but rather have a small snack like cookies or chips to keep the hunger at bay and get better results and frankly better opinions.

Your language is important:

The way in which you say things can affect the session. Never, and I repeat never tell participants you are doing usability “testing”. The word testing gives the impression of responses being right or wrong in usability testing. There are no right or wrong answers in the session, only opinions from experts as they are the target audience for the product.

I like to use positive language. Negative sentences stop communication and create defensive remarks. “Tell people what you want, rather than telling them what you don’t want and edit “don’t” out of your vocabulary”

Don’t be married to the design:

It is important to explain to participants that you want them to be brutally honest with their opinions. It is the human condition to want to make people happy. Participants will try to do the same by giving you feedback they think you want to hear. You need to distance yourself from the intended research and explain that you welcome their opinions and won’t take any of their opinions personally. The main aim of testing is to  make the product better for people like the participant.

This is not only empowering but gives them a sense of being the expert. Let’s face it they are the experts, you need to be the apprentice; they are teaching you and giving you insights you probably wouldn’t be able to come up with yourself as your mental model is likely to differ from theirs.

Understanding the mental model:

A mental model  is a model of what users know (or think they know) about a system. This means that they base their actions and assumptions on previous experience of other interfaces. Essentially, we all know that if you click on a home button (on most websites) you will be taken to the main landing page. If the home button takes users to the contact page, it doesn’t align with our mental model and therefore causes confusion. Be careful not to pass judgement here, users see things differently to you and that’s good, that’s exactly what you want! You want to understand the way in which users think and navigate an interface. This leads to delightful things being created for the target audience.

Keep participants on track:

You are in control of the session, you have to gently nudge participants back onto topic if they veer too much from what you are researching, but it is also very important to allow participants to talk, they are in the process of creating opinions on the service/product they are working with, allow them to create this and not be cut off mid sentence. Respect their opinions.


The more usability sessions you do the better you will get.  You may realise  that these tips work for some people but don’t work for others. You will learn to analyse people and provide a caring, engaging and empathetic relationship, it just takes time. Good luck!