Design Research in Call Centres: Here be dragons

James Turner
6 min readSep 4, 2016


If you dip your design toe into the Enterprise UX waters long enough, you’ll find yourself in a call centre.

Whilst Intercom is the darling of every startup’s customer success team, the rest of the world still relies on people to take phone calls from often disgruntled customers.

As design assignments go, it won’t sound glamorous.

You’ll get the 6am train out of London to somewhere North of the wall. 4 hours later you’ll be a taxi to an edge of town business park and arrive at a anonymous grey steel clad building.

However, this is about to become one of the most rewarding design projects of your career. Where others see another mediocre enterprise assignment, you see opportunity;

  • The contact centre is where you find out what is actually broken in the organisation. No one calls to tell you how much they love your company or to congratulate you on the password reset mechanism you designed.
  • You’ll have hundreds of users at your finger tips. Research and usability testing has never been so convenient. Go ahead and build a prototype or two. You can test it (for free!) as much as your like.
  • Call centre agents are open to change. I guarantee that the systems they have to use for 8 hours a day will horiffy you. You could be the first designer in your company to have ever been brought onto a project like this. You’re a trailblazer.
  • Design is just one constraint after another. And with enterprise software, there’s no shortage of constraints. Every design decision you make will be a compromise to a legacy system’s limitation. This is the home of the mythical wicked problem.

Excited yet? Excellent.

The Church of Call Centre Evangelists welcomes you with open arms. Whilst your design peers continue to wander in the fog of enterprise CRM ambivalence, you have seen the light.

Praise be to the call centre

I’ve just spent 6 months as the sole (and therefore self proclaimed Lead) UX designer on a call centre project. Along the way I’ve picked up a few tips to help you along. Follow me as a guide you through some trials awaiting you.

How to run excellent call centre research

Recruit yourself an ambassador

If you’ve never been in one before, call centres are confusing places. They’re big, loud and intimidating. They have their own social conventions and unwritten rules. It’s dangerous to go alone, find some help.

Like a real ambassador, yours can help make things happen, educate you on local customs and arrange meetings with important dignitaries. They can also be the voice of the project when you’re not around.

Find someone who’s got an interest in the project, ideally they’re part of the project team itself as an SME (Subject Matter Expert).

They’ll be your translator too. From deciphering confusing acronyms, to identifying the roles of all the software programmes agents have to use on a daily basis.

Timing is everything

Call centres are like a city’s reservoirs. Engineers have to constantly monitor how much water is coming an, and how much is going out. Replace water with phone calls in our analogy and our water engineers become Demand Managers.

It’s their role to make sure the right number of agents are ready to take calls when needed, so customers aren’t on hold too long. It’s a tricky job, with lots of metrics and experience needed to get it right.

You’ll need to liaise with them when planning your research sessions. Whilst you might just be observing agents, your mere presence is going to slow them down.

The Demand Manager will be able to help you judge the best times for your research, and how long you’ll have.

Observe the immediate environment

For your research, you’ll probably be sat next to an agent and listening in on their calls. You focus will be on what’s happening on the phone, and on their screen.

However, don’t forget to take note (and photos) of their surrounding area. What an agents chooses to keep on their desk can tell you a lot about their pain points.

For instance, on my project I noticed that lots of agents kept a printed conversion table which broke down “Average miles per year” (a question customers get asked for car insurance) to “Average miles per week”.

Customers could much more accurately estimate their millage on a weekly basis. So whilst we couldn’t change the underlying quoting system, we could build this conversion tool into our project.

Get your Data Protection protocols in order

Whilst a good design researcher always pays attention to protecting the participants identity and data, the stakes are much higher now.

You’ll be dealing with real customer data, possibly for the first time in your job. Get things wrong and there could be some serous consequences for everyone.

Every project, company and jurisdiction is going to have its own requirements here. But any medium-large company is going to have experts to help you. Engage them early and show them your research plan.

Things which would normally be acceptable, like snapping some research photos on your phone might be a serious data breach in a call centre. In my example, I had to make sure everything was either securely wiped or encrypted before it left the building.

A picture (and videos) speak a thousand words

Whilst data protection is important, don’t let it stop you documenting your research properly. Try to negotiate permission for screen recordings of the agents PC (you’ll probably have to do this with a camera on a tripod instead of software solution).

The speed an experienced agent can navigate a system is mesmerising. Having a video to go back and analyse will make sure you don’t miss a crucial step or potential pain point.

Even better, you might be able to get the audio recordings of phone calls too. I managed to get recordings with all the personal data redacted. I could then sync up the screen recordings with the actual call for later analysis.

If you can do this, you’ll dramatically reduce the pressure to note down everything from your research session at the time.

Not all agents are equal

After you’ve spent some time in the contact centre with agents, you’ll need to make sure you’re getting a good cross section of abilities. Those who have been using the clunky, unintuitive software apps for years won’t be struggling.

Whilst the UI might be incomprehensible to you, agents will fly through them in a blur of keystrokes.

To counter this, try to find the person in charge of new agent training. They’ll be a great source of insight into what newbies struggle with. Better yet, join them during and after their initial training. This might be more socially difficult, as they’ll be more nervous about your presence.

Don’t overlook this group though. Training is a HUGE overhead for call centre managers. If your new design solution is intuitive and built in a user centred way, you’ll save them litterally days in training time.

If you’re from an agency, prepare for frustration

Finally, if this is an agency led project, prepare to be frustrated. Everything is going to take longer than you expect and plan accordingly in this environment.

From the first day where you’ll need to get your pass, to actually getting down to some research, be flexible and set lower expectations for a ‘day’s work’ then you’d normally have.

I hope your call centre project is as rewarding as mine was. And let me know if you found these tips useful.



James Turner

I’m James, a UX designer and researcher working in the healthcare sector.