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

5/23/14Follow @bromano

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fast and easy for customers with questions. Clicking on the image of the mouse triggers a search of all the questions asked as well as answers given on that site, with the most relevant ones—based on things like how recently and frequently they’re asked—presented first. Contrast that to a typical search through help island, which starts with typing and then skimming through results to select one that might contain an answer to your question.

“So it flips the formulation and selection process around,” says Wobbrock, whose expertise is in human-computer interaction. “And as a result, we don’t get duplicates. We have about 10,000 questions in our system and never had a duplicate because people first look and say, ‘Oh, that’s my question,’ even if it’s maybe not how they would have typed it.”

That’s one of the efficiency benefits of this contextual, object-oriented approach. It addresses the so-called vocabulary problem in information technology: “people use a surprisingly great variety of words to refer to the same thing,” as the authors of a widely-cited paper published in Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery put it back in 1987 (PDF).

“You say, ‘How do I insert an image?’ I say, ‘How do I upload a photo?’ He says, ‘How do I add a picture?’” explains Wobbrock. “All different nouns and verbs, but we mean the same thing.”

Because consumers aren’t stuck typing the same question over and over in slightly different ways, customer support teams don’t have to waste time answer it repeatedly.

AnswerDash also allows people to ask questions using far fewer words, part of why it’s particularly well-suited to mobile apps and Websites. Your question about the mouse could be as simple as “Will this go on sale?” The people answering the question know what this you’re referring to because they can see precisely where you asked it on their Web site, providing the necessary context. (This contextual requirement is something linguists call deixis.)

“That’s a powerful thing that no one has really taken advantage of on the Web yet,” Wobbrock says.

It also points to another reason businesses would buy the AnswerDash service, which is sold on a tiered subscription model based on how many times users click on the Q&A tab and starting at $24 a month.

“When a user clicks on a question and sees an answer, that informs a whole set of analytics we can provide the company,” Wobbrock says.

Not only does AnswerDash reduce abandoned transactions by allowing quick answers to customer questions, it also shows companies fine-grained details about which specific questions and answers lead to sales. For software-as-a-service companies—an industry AnswerDash is targeting initially—this is important for reducing customer churn, particularly in the early phases of adoption when new users are likely to have more questions.

AnswerDash received a $500,000 seed investment from the W Fund last fall. In December, that was folded into a $2.4 million Series A round led by Voyager Capital and WRF Capital, with participation from Summit Capital, Geoff Entress and four other angel investors. It just announced new directors and advisors, including former Drugstore.com CEO Dawn Lepore and former Decide.com CEO Mike Fridgen. Other board members include Voyager managing director Bill McAleer and Seattle technology executive Ken Myer.  [An earlier version incorrectly suggested Fridgen was with Voyager and omitted the reference to other board members.]

The eight-person company housed at the UW C4C has several beta customers including Moz, Big Fish Games, and the CIO of the state of Washington, Wobbrock says, adding that the product will come out of beta soon.

Wobbrock and Ko were granted leave to work on the startup, which underscores the support they feel from the iSchool, Wobbrock says.

“It’s a significant impact on the department to have two of its faculty not really in the trenches,” he says.

That support also points to an expanding definition of academic success, traditionally measured by scholarly journal articles and federal grant funding.

“The Information School realizes that by spinning things out, that’s another form of impact, that’s another way of impacting the world,” Wobbrock says.

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.