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The Importance of the “Unhappy Path”

A road leading into a dark, cloudy future
Image Credit: © by-studio – #157164548

When modelling processes and customer journeys, there is a tendency for organisations to focus on the ‘80/20’ rule and spend most of their time designing and refining the most commonly trodden  routes through the process—sometimes known as the ‘happy path’.  This ‘happy path’ typically assumes that the customer does everything at least broadly correctly, has the right information to hand and so forth—and focussing on the happy path enables us to ensure that the process is effective and efficient for a majority of cases.


Yet in our attempts to improve the ‘happy path’, we must not forget the alternative flows and exceptions that may occur.  The business must make a decision about the types of demand that it wishes (or is compelled) to deal with, and it is crucial that the process is built to handle that level of variety.  Just because something occurs infrequently doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.  In fact, some very ‘infrequent’ events might represent real ‘moments of truth’ where we have the opportunity to impress or frustrate the customer.


Let’s take an example.  Imagine we were modelling the ‘Retain Customer’ process within a telecommunications firm.  This process is initiated when a customer rings up to cancel, and its aim is to provide a range of options to try to convince the customer to stay.  If they really want to leave then of course the account will be cancelled.  It’s likely that the focus of the process and detailed work design would be on ‘standard’ customers ringing—typically people who have seen a cheaper price elsewhere.  However, there are other scenarios that will need to be dealt with differently.


Imagine a relative ringing to deal with an elderly relative’s account on their behalf.  I suspect ‘dealing with a customer representative under power of attorney’ isn’t at the front of most people’s minds but it will happen.  In many cases this might require a different approach, and depending on the reason that the relative is ringing, might require far more fact-finding and empathy than a standard call.  This is a real ‘moment of truth’—the relative may be expecting a protracted and difficult process. Make it easy and you might even gain them as a customer.


Unlikely Doesn’t Mean Unimportant

Just because a scenario is unlikely, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least consider it.  The challenge is to decide which scenarios to consider and design processes or process branches for.  Clearly we can’t design for everything (“What will we do if the Prime Minister visits unexpectedly, and it’s also the 1st of April so we’re not sure if it’s an April Fool’s joke or not?).


I suspect most organisations consider the frequency of the event or scenario when making this decision.  This is useful, but it is also important to consider the severity, strength of feeling or outcome.  Taking an example, if you have ever flown, you will have seen a safety demonstration (“..lights in the aisles will illuminate to guide you to your nearest exit, and remember, your nearest usable exit may be behind you.”).   I suspect (hope!) that if you have flown you have seen the safety demonstration on 100% of flights, and had to use the advice given on precisely 0% of flights.  In fact, even though around 1.2million flights operate in or out of the UK each year, government statistics show there are typically 0 fatal incidents.  So why bother?  Why pay so much money for safety equipment, and take so much time training cabin crew and giving demonstrations?


Looking at this (deliberately provocative) example, the answer is pretty clear—even though the risk of incident is very, very, low, the severity and consequence if it does occur is extremely high.  I certainly find it easier to relax on a flight knowing that safety has been considered!  The same is true in less extreme and emotive cases too.  We might not immediately think about how we’ll make our paper forms available to blind people, but we probably should (in the UK there is legislation that mandates equality, but irrespective I would argue there is an ethical imperative to do so).  In this case there might be a small adjustment to the process (perhaps sending a PDF version that is accessible by a screen-reader).  This small, easy, adjustment will make things much, much easier when the scenario presents itself.


In summary: Whilst it is completely understandable that organisations focus on the ‘happy path’, as analysts and service designers we should ensure that the alternate paths and ‘unhappy paths’ are considered too.  Considering the frequency and severity will help us prioritise and decide where most effort should be focussed.  In doing so, we can equip those who will actually be operating the process with the tools that they need to meet the needs of the customer.


What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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2 thoughts on “The Importance of the “Unhappy Path””

  1. Great point Adrian. I work in financial services, pensions and investments, things that many people don’t think about when everything is going well. But when the 20% happens and they need access to their funds for some reason, that’s a real ‘moment of truth’ for them as a customer. As an organisation we are very focussed on moments of truth and I love to hear the great stories of when we’ve helped someone out of a difficult situation and made their lives simpler.

  2. Thanks Sarah. Yes, this is particularly relevant for Financial Services companies. I remember once spending time ‘shadowing’ in a Financial Services call centre, and I gained a whole new appreciation for the types of query that they got in, but also how awesome they were at solving them in such an empathetic way. This was a call centre where the organisation deliberately put customer service first (i.e. didn’t just focus on ‘call length time’, etc). It was a real eye opener for me, and has stuck with me ever since.

    Great to hear that your organisation is focussed on ‘moments of truth’ and helping the customer, that sounds awesome 🙂

    Hope you’re well, hope to chat soon — Adrian.

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