Stuck on Website ‘Help Island’? First UW iSchool Spinout Has the Answer

5/23/14Follow @bromano

[Corrected 5/23/14, 10:53 am. See below.] The University of Washington Information School has more than a century of history, and now, it’s first startup company, AnswerDash, which aims to improve self-service online help for e-commerce, government, and other Websites.

While startup companies and technologies with commercial potential regularly emerge from the larger UW Computer Science and Engineering departments, that hasn’t been the case with the iSchool, which fosters technology innovation in areas such as human-computer interaction and information management and science.

Linden Rhoads, vice provost of the UW Center for Commercialization (C4C), thinks AnswerDash could be the beginning of a trend.

People familiar with UW Computer Science and Engineering “don’t realize the extent to which we have this world-famous iSchool that looks at similar but different specialized subject matter,” she says. The iSchool ranked third among library and information studies graduate programs and fourth for information systems programs by U.S. News & World Report.

Within the iSchool, which began as the Department of Library Economy in 1911, AnswerDash is being celebrated as a milestone. Professor and iSchool dean Harry Bruce says the company is indicative of the kind of research done by faculty and students nowadays on facilitating and deepening people’s experience with information.

“As the iSchool grows”—it hired eight new faculty this year for a total of 49, including lecturers—”and we continue to attract highly creative PhD students, the potential for further commercialization of our research will undoubtedly increase,” Bruce says in an e-mail. “We are excited by the prospect of deepening our impact through the development of successful companies that provide innovative tools, systems, and services that make information work.” [An earlier version suggested the total iSchool faculty was 42, including the new hires. There are currently 42 faculty, with the new hires growing the ranks to 49 to start next year.]

AnswerDash—which began last year under the name Qazzow and just changed its name—is based on a four-year research effort by then-iSchool PhD student Parmit Chilana (now a professor at University of Waterloo) and her co-founders, Jake Wobbrock and Andy Ko, both professors at UW.

The idea is to make finding online help easier and faster for consumers, and less onerous for businesses to provide it.

AnswerDash logo“Web self-service is an important area because it puts the burden on the user and takes it off the company in terms of cost,” says Wobbrock, the company’s president and CEO (pictured, at left above, with Ko and Chilana). “At the same time, humans want to self-serve because they feel self-sufficient and confident.”

There’s real money at stake, too. Shoppers are more likely to abandon their transaction if they can’t find the answer they need, he says. AnswerDash estimates this is the cause of upwards of $8 billion in lost e-commerce revenue in the U.S. each year.

There are problems with most of the standard online help scenarios today, Wobbrock says. So called “help islands”—separate pages populated by things like knowledge base articles, isolated lists of frequently asked questions, and endless user forums—are typically cumbersome and require lots of digging to find what is usually a one-sentence answer to a simple question. They are used infrequently and often fail to provide an answer, Wobbrock says. Live online chats can be more effective, but take time and company resources. Help is even harder to find on mobile Web pages and apps, which account for a fast-growing portion of retail e-commerce sales.

“Mobile self-service almost doesn’t exist. So we give them an F-minus, which is also a grade that doesn’t exist,” Wobbrock says.

AnswerDash’s answer is software as a service that offers contextual help. It combines patent-pending object-oriented search, a bit of crowd-sourcing, and the 80-20 rule (the most common questions are few in number but asked most frequently) to provide what looks to me like a significantly improved online help experience.

With a single line of Javascript added to a Web page, AnswerDash manifests as a small “Q&A” tab on the side or bottom of the page. So, say you’re looking at a computer mouse on an e-commerce site and want to know whether it might be going on sale soon. You click on the Q&A tab and everything on the page—text, images, links, buttons—becomes a clickable object. Click on the image of the mouse, and up comes a dialogue box with answers to questions others have asked about it, and an invitation to ask a new question. You can ask about the sale right there, and your question, along with the company’s response, is added to the information associated with that object—wherever it appears on the Web site.

The most common questions and answers accumulate over time, building a corpus of easy-to-access information that will take care of most customers’ needs, freeing up a company’s customer support teams for the trickier questions.

“There will always be a long-tail of questions that we don’t intend to handle, and those are appropriately escalated to customer support,” Wobbrock says.

Object-oriented search seems to be the real secret sauce here, making the process … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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  • Wistar Kay

    Do us all a favor and sell this solution to Salesforce! Their FAQ sends me in circles of re-stating my questions over and over.