Digital products will always need customer education

Customer education builds on mental models

Everyone views the world differently, our perceived realities are not the same which means all of our customers have a different set of mental models.

Mental models are people's internal representation of the world around us. They are formed by our past experiences, our knowledge and our intuition. And they determine how we think, how we act and how we learn.

Have you ever questioned why a digital calculator (say on the iPhone) looks like a physical calculator when it could look like anything at all? It's because that's what people are familiar with. Our mental models tell us how a calculator should look. People that have used a physical calculator rarely require education on how to use a digital calculator. It feels obvious to say, but that's kind of my point. These things are so embedded in us we don't even question them.

We also build up a catalog of associations within our mental models. Take our understanding of traffic lights for example. Green means go, red means stop and orange means get ready. Designers often use these analogies within their software. We associate green as an action colour, a colour for success; whereas red is a colour to stop you in your tracks and is often used for errors. These don't have to be explained, somehow we just know.

When designers design digital products, they look for common aspects of people's mental models that they can utilise. When a digital product team understand their customers' mental models, they are able to build a product that feels entirely intuitive and completely natural to start working in. Ever started playing with an app and knew exactly what to do first time? That's a product team that understand their users. If 80% of your customers are familiar with Facebook you could sensibly adopt some of the user interface elements on Facebook.

However, what about the 20% of your customers who don't use Facebook. By building for these 'common mental models' product teams unwillingly build in a barrier to entry. For a person unfamiliar with the mental models of a digital product they will start to become confused, frustrated and even angry with the software they are trying to work with. This is when they'll get in contact with your support teams or even leave your service, never to return and getting them back isn't going to be easy.

We've looked at some very basic examples but take a second to think about a piece of accounting software. Accounting software would be built for the common mental models of accountants and not for the mental models of average-Joe. So average-Joe would need to be educated (trained) before using the accounting product.

And this is why customer education will remain important. For those people who don't have the required mental model to use your digital product they will need a hand to give them the skills.

Customer education can build upon people's existing mental models and provide them with the knowledge to use your digital product. Tools like how-to guides are really great at this. Knowledgeable customers, those who know how to extract the most value from your digital products and services, are less likely to raise support requests: they don't need to, your software is now intuitive to them. They are also more likely to convert and less likely to churn: they see how to get the most value from your service why would they leave?! And finally they will be more satisfied: you're scratching their itch better than anyone else.

A strong customer education strategy seeks to ensure all your customers are able to get the most value from your service no matter what their mental models are.

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