Helping ‘help’: AnswerDash enhances online customer experience

Story by Eric Wagner

Pity the poor customer marooned on what Jake Wobbrock calls a “help island.” All the person has is a question about something on a company’s website. But before they know it, they find themselves going in circles over knowledgebase articles, FAQs, and help forums, sifting through pages of information, none of which tells them precisely what they want to know. And this must be one very motivated person to begin with, because only 1% of website visitors will bother engaging with such help islands on a website. Most people just give up and go to a competitor.

“Nobody wants to blunder through a poorly designed website,” says Wobbrock, a professor at the University of Washington Information School.

The consequences can be significant: based on industry and government statistics, Wobbrock estimates that $8.2 billion of potential revenue is lost each year when would-be website visitors leave a site because they can’t get their questions answered.

Photo of AnswerDash Team

AnswerDash Team

To help businesses stop site abandonment, Wobbrock and Andy Ko, also at the Information School, have developed a system that will instantly give customers relevant answers to almost any question they might have, without them having to resort to the usual cumbersome help pathways which, along with help islands, include email, live chat, or telephone support. Wobbrock and Ko’s company, AnswerDash, is the first start-up to come out of the UW Information School. It offers businesses a set of tools and a user interface for website visitors that capture and manage questions and answers so they appear within a website itself, right where people need answers — the customer doesn’t even have to leave the screen they’re on.

“We bring the answer to where the user has the question,” Wobbrock says, “rather than make the user take their question to go find where an answer might be.”

The way AnswerDash works is that, on a website, a small Q&A tab on the side or bottom of the page lets the user know the service is available. When the user has a question, they simply click on that tab. Everything on the screen then becomes a clickable object where answers can be retrieved. The user can move their cursor over any screen object — a picture of a product, for example, or a link, or some text — and AnswerDash brings up the common questions related to that object, guided by what customers have asked before and the context on the page. The user finds their question, gets their answer, and moves happily along, usually without typing any text at all, just with a few clicks or taps.

Photo of AnswerDash Screen Shot

AnswerDash Screen Shot

The measured results have been impressive: about 30% increases in sales conversion rates, and 60% reductions in customer support costs for sites that adopt AnswerDash. Wobbrock also reports that website visitors stay about three times longer and see about three times as many pages on sites using the service.

AnswerDash started as the Ph.D. dissertation project of Parmit Chilana, a graduate student co-advised by professors Ko and Wobbrock. (Chilana is now a professor at the University of Waterloo, in Canada.) Her project, entitled LemonAid, was guided by a simple question: is there a better way to enable people to get help online more easily?
“The burden is usually on the user to find what they need,” Wobbrock says. If they have a question, they either have to search for it in knowledgebases or FAQs, or ask for it in a help forum, or contact someone via live chat, email, or phone. But less than 1% of visitors use these traditional methods, and assisted service channels can be more costly than self-service of the kind AnswerDash provides.

Wobbrock and Ko saw that their work had commercial potential in 2011. With the help of $25,000 from a UW Center for Commercialization Gap Fund grant, as well $2.54 million from outside investors, they started AnswerDash in September 2012. AnswerDash has now worked with nearly 40 companies. These companies not only save on customer support and see significant sales conversion increases, but they also get in-depth analytics on their customer needs, revealing insights that enable better design of websites. Because the questions arise from actual people using a site, AnswerDash answers reflect what customers actually need to know, as opposed to what the companies might think their customers need to know.

“We live in a networked world,” Wobbrock says. “Information is everywhere, and we think everyone should be able to get answers everywhere, on everything, too.”