How a Stanford Ph.D. Would Approach Self-Service


Are your people using self-service as much as you’d like them to? Probably not. Instead, they’re opening trouble tickets, waiting around for answers, and not getting any work done. This isn’t good for anyone. It’s expensive for you, and your employees are losing productivity. They need to start using self-service, but how do you get them to change their behavior? Scolding them won’t work. A common suggestion is to improve user experience, but that’s too vague. You need something concrete and actionable.

Model for Success

Dr. BJ Fogg is the founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University and creator of the Fogg Behavior Model. He found that three factors must be present for a behavior to occur: motivation, ability, and a trigger (B=MAT). If a single element is missing, the desired action will not take place.

The model can be illustrated with a mobile phone. Consider the following scenarios:

  • You’re at lunch. Your phone rings, but it’s on silent. You don’t notice it ringing, so you miss the trigger to answer it.
  • You’re in a meeting. Your phone rings, but you’re busy. You don’t answer because you don’t have the ability to take the call.
  • Your phone rings. You look at the screen and don’t recognize the number. The call goes unanswered because you have no motivation to answer it.

To answer your phone, you need to notice it ringing and physically be able to answer it. Then, you need to have sufficient motivation to speak to the caller. If any of these elements aren’t present, it will not be answered.

Self-service is no different. If you want people to start using it, there needs to be motivation, ability, and a trigger. But what are each of those elements in this case? Let’s discuss them in detail.


A trigger is what signals a behavior. There are two types: external and internal. An external trigger is an explicit call to action. It could be an advertisement or a recommendation from a friend. Better yet, it could be an app icon on your smartphone, reminding you to take action every time you see it. The point is that when you see it, you know what to do next.

An internal trigger is when a human emotion cues an action. It is formed when an external trigger is seen enough times to become associated with a feeling. Product designers see these triggers as the ultimate goal because they mark the formation of a habit.

Example: Instagram

Instagram has many external triggers. Maybe a friend told you to download the app. Maybe you saw an Instagram photo posted on Facebook. Maybe you saw it featured in Apple’s App Store. Whatever trigger caused you to download it, the app icon now sits on your phone, and it delivers notifications whenever your friends post new photos. You begin to rely on the app to stay up-to-date with friends. Before long, you have connected your social fear of missing out with Instagram. Whenever you’re bored or feeling lonely you log in. It has succeeded in creating an internal trigger.

Creating an Internal Trigger for Self-Service

A common method for opening a ticket is by emailing the service desk. It’s a simple experience, but still frustrating for employees because they have to wait for answers. Consider isolating the question, cross referencing it with your self-service knowledge base, then firing back links to knowledge articles with possible answers. These links will serve as your external trigger. Users will repeatedly see that their questions are self-serviceable, and realize they can get immediate answers with self-service. The desire to alleviate the pain associated with having a problem will eventually become associated with self-service. At this point an internal trigger has been created, and you’ll have won devoted users. 

An action will still not occur if it is too hard to perform, regardless of how strong the associated trigger is. 


A person must be able to complete a desired action simply. Ideally it needs to be as easy as Amazon’s “1-click shopping” or “sign up with Facebook.” If an action cannot happen with ease, it will not be performed. The six elements that influence simplicity are: time, money, physical effort, brain cycles, social deviance, and non-routine. All are important, but the three that are relevant in our discussion of self-service are: time, brain cycles, and non-routine. Let’s discuss how each relates to self-service.

1) Time

If it takes too much time to perform a task, it is not simple. A common complaint with modern self-service tools is that it takes too long to find what you are looking for. Keyword searches surface long documents that take a long time to read through. Google solved this problem. They allow people to ask questions and get simple answers. To mirror this experience, tag documents with the questions they answer. Also attach brief answers. Make the Q&A available via search and the experience of getting answers will be just as fast as Google’s. Employees will type in a question, get a brief answer, then be able to click into the relevant article if they require more detail.

2) Brain Cycles

Our minds are already consumed with a lot throughout the day. When a task requires too much thinking, or “brain cycles,” it is not simple. Self-service portals are filled with knowledge articles, which are often long, written in technical language, and difficult for non-technical people to understand. Try writing knowledge articles in simple language, and avoid using acronyms. Use the Flesch-Kincaid readability test to regulate the readability of your articles. The test uses sentence length and average syllables per word to determine the reading grade-level for a piece of writing. Lower is better, but aim for at most a 6-8th grade reading level.

Long articles also require more brain cycles, but that can be resolved by attaching brief answers to documents, as disused in the previous section.

3) Non-Routine

Tasks are easier to complete when they don’t stray far from a routine. The average employee is responsible for one trouble ticket per month. Even if they are following appropriate procedures by searching self-service before contacting support, it’s not simple because doing something once a month is not a routine task. To decrease this friction, self-service should be tightly integrated within workflows. It should accessible in the applications employees use every day, preferably the same applications they are most likely to have questions about. If you are working in SAP and have a question, the best experience would be to have a search bar in the application where you can ask your question and receive an answer.


Motivation is the only element of the Fogg Behavioral Model that is already taken care of for us in self-service. Generally there are three types of motivation, each with two sides: pleasure/pain, hope/fear, and social acceptance/rejection. When an employee has a question, they are dealing with pain and fear because having a question can bring their productivity to a grinding halt. If you work in data entry and can’t access the company drive, you can’t do anything. If you work in sales and can’t find a specific sales deck, you risk losing a sale. Whether you’re in IT, HR, Sales, or Operations, you experience pain when you cannot answer a question, which leads to a fear of job security. This pain is even stronger when you have to wait for a service desk agent to help resolve your ticket. People want to be able to get immediate answers to their questions. Once they see that your self-service tools are capable of helping them do that, they will be motivated to use them.

Learning from Others

The work involved in figuring out how to make self-service successful has been done for us. Product designers are constantly trying to out-do each other, making products easier to use and increasingly habit-forming. The Fogg Behavioral model is the result of studying these products, identifying what works and what doesn’t. If you want people to finally start using the tools available to them, they need to be designed with these insights in mind.

Interested in this approach to self-service? Check out our website.


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