Why all designers should do customer support

All new hires at Automattic are required to spend three weeks as a Happiness Engineer, solving…basically anything one can create with a site. Plus anything that the phrase “systems thinking” adds to its scope.

Many years ago, I had a stint at Apple as a Genius, which meant that it was my job to troubleshoot and fix any hardware or software that Apple made. I assumed that supporting users of would be comparable, and therefore, I merely had to brush up on my doublespeak, read some docs, and the ability to handle anything thrown at me with sunniness and poise would soon return. It would be like riding a bike.

So after patting myself on the back for saying no to the temptation of visiting yet another new P2, I pinged my Happiness Engineering buddy. She took me through some curated (read: easy) tickets. I crafted succinct and effective responses, with correct answers and plenty of closure. I was ready–I had gotten through my Automattic hiring trial, so this felt like getting to the secret cow level in Diablo 2. I thought to myself, “you’re gonna pwn this.”


For anyone who has played Diablo 2, you know that it was actually I who was about to get owned:


Because what I chose to forget, but definitely knew, was that most of my work running the Genius Bar wasn’t getting my elbows greasy, but “repairing relationships.” Making sure people didn’t go home and burn their devices. Or get a PC 😱. Gaining and keeping their trust, that you didn’t just understand their problem, but somehow validated and empathized with what they were ultimately using their device for. No one buys a Mac for the chess game. Knowing this immediately prioritizes certain things over getting the right answer or showing how smart you are.

And that’s the big thing that I wish I had paid more attention to while doing my rotation: I wanted to get the answer right as often as possible. In some ways, you know if a domain is working or not; if something can be CSS’ed or not. I got caught up in trying “to fix the computer in 15 minutes or less” over fixing the customer’s relationship with the computer.

Eventually, after realizing that going MIA or down documentation rabbit holes was the wrong way to do this, I just started asking questions. This seems simple enough except that asking for help is something I’ve always had to actively work on, and I suppose that, like alcoholism, its one of those things that one doesn’t overcome fully, but continuously recovers from instead.

There was a bigger reason why I started asking all the things without worrying if I would pollute the airways, in that it was to get comfortable with how I would need to communicate in a totally distributed company that refers to communication as its oxygen. I’m grateful for the buddy system–aside from its practical purposes, it’s important to collaborate with different job roles and people to stay grounded and in touch with reality as a designer.

Soon enough, I was told I’d fit in quite nicely after I posted this special request:

At Automattic, communication might be our oxygen, but puns are legal tender.


To understand the user is to deny one’s self

Sure, my gut reaction to try and demonstrate my technical skill probably reflected an expected level of insecurity as a new hire. Perhaps too, it was digging up bad memories of having male customers start off my support sessions with them by asking me if someone else was available to help them–because I’m a woman.

But what if it was also because I had accrued a little sense of entitlement here and there, after working at companies where designers are treated as heroes who just have to Make but not clean up after themselves? Designers talk about how important it is to them to talk to users–so those who do customer support are in many ways the true hero, unsung. There’s a world of difference between talking to a helpful, friendly user and an angry, hostile customer.

I also saw some weird stuff as a Genius, and certainly saw some interesting sites during my support rotation. Like answering tickets was a way to build up the cognitive muscles needed for distributed work, seeing how people used the platform was a way for me to understand the myriad of use cases and permutations of each of those. But I have to say that I never saw anything inspiring when troubleshooting software. Mind you, I’m an idealistic person, but I’m also in touch with my cynical side, so I approach the concept of inspiration, particularly when it’s part of my employment, with a good helping of secular doubt.

There was one particular ticket I answered, which had a straightforward question. I knew the answer off the cuff, but I still went on the user’s site to you know–judge it. It was a person who, long story short, had blogged about her life with cancer since a young age, who had started back up because well, so had the cancer. As a result of her treatments, she was too weak to have a normal job. While she has universal healthcare in her part of the world, she chose to continue working on the blog because the money it made restored a sense of dignity-of-work for her when so much had been taken away. In my own life these are things I have taken for granted and even expressed annoyance with. She wasn’t a cranky customer at all, very grateful and patient, and I probably shouldn’t have been a snoop but I’m glad I checked out her site because it stuck with me. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have less confessional content up but are still using their site to ameliorate their own difficult situations, and not everything is going to tug at my heartstrings, but like I said, I’m an idealistic person and I’m glad the Internet exists, warts and all, so that this kind of story (person!) can have a happier ending.

And so I emerge, with oh so many privileges checked and with a belly full of humble pie. It’s crustless, sugar-free, full-of fiber, yet still chock-full of calories!



By Desiree Zamora Garcia

I like to eat, think, and take things apart.