09 November 2020

How to deliver excellent software support

Digital dreams

I'm a software support engineer at heart, even though some of my recent career history might suggest otherwise (life has a way of doing that), so I particularly appreciate good support when I receive it. I've always prided myself on getting behind the initial question to the root of an issue, and I was delighted to be on the customer side of exactly that scenario this week.


One of my former employers who is a software developer put it very well when he said:

"Technical support is the area that makes or breaks the customer experience".


In some ways, this is going to read like an advert for the product concerned. I have no affiliation with the company other than as a customer, and this is not a product review, but I did choose the app for its features, and I make no apology for singing its praises.


Background

For many years, Andy and I have used a succession of shared, synchronised Grocery List apps.  The idea is that whenever either of us notices that we’re running low on something, we can add it to the list, and whoever next goes shopping will know what we need to buy - and will have their phone with them to access the list.  


Our very first solution was a printed, laminated checklist of the most common things we needed, which we used as a small whiteboard in the kitchen. We ticked the printed items and wrote other stuff on it as needed. We photographed it before leaving to go shopping and wiped it clean when we got back - which was fine if we set out shopping from home, but not so good for shopping on the way home from work, and certainly no use if you remembered something when you weren't actually at home to add it to the list.

A dedicated Grocery List app can be an improvement on using a generic note taking / checklist app (such as a shared note in Google Keep) in a number of ways. They generally work on the basis that you have a list of things that you will need to buy over and over again, so they remember what you put on the list, and allow you to add the same items next time you need them. This means that they can remember whatever details about brand / size / quantity / price, etc. that you might want to make a note of, keep track of prices if you want to (great for budgeting), and - with a bit of initial effort - group the items you need by aisle, and arrange your shopping list in the order that you reach the aisles in your local supermarket.


As the way we shop in a global pandemic has changed, depending on the social distancing rules in force at any given time, having your list sorted in at least roughly the order that you have to walk around a one-way system in a store can be a huge help.  


You'll find a whole host of Grocery List apps in the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, each with a different feature list, and some of which offer shared shopping lists (a must-have feature for us).  We've used at least 3 different apps over the years, and I've rejected many many more each time I've been inspired to look for a new and better solution. 


Anylist

Anylist logo

Our current app of choice is Anylist by Purple Cover Inc. It’s available on Android, iOS and as a web app, and allows you to create multiple colour-coded private and shared lists, and also includes recipe and meal planning sections. There is a free version, but we have a paid family subscription for the Pro version - partly because it offers extra functionality, but also because I like to support developers who offer great solutions.


Purple Cover is a small company, with (as far as I can tell from publicly available information) no more than a handful of employees.  I think that's often a benefit: everybody involved is passionate about what they do, and it's a reasonable bet that they use the product in their day-to-day lives.  Nobody's there just because they need to earn a living. 


The issue

The latest Android version of Anylist (Version 1.7 / Build 89, released in October 2020) introduced a new feature of dark mode for the app, based on whether your phone is working in dark mode at the OS level.  Normally, I’m a big fan of dark mode, but for some reason, I was finding the UI to be less clear in this app in dark mode, so I looked for a way to override it, and manually switch to light mode.  


I couldn’t find a way to do it, so I used Send Feedback from the app settings menu, to email a request for an option to manually set the mode to light / dark / same as phone.


The response

Jason replied to me the same day, not only considering my request as stated, but also probing into why dark mode wasn’t working as well as it might for me.  At this point, I’m already awarding 10 out of 10 for listening to feedback, and not only being willing to make changes, but also wanting to understand the underlying cause of the problem to fix that, rather than just addressing the symptom.  


I took a more careful look at the app, and once I had worked out why (some of) my lists weren’t as clear for me in dark mode, I sent Jason an explanation accompanied by some screenshots showing the differences between the theme previews in the app, and making some suggestions about how it might be possible to improve the advanced theme customisation already available in the app to give more control over headings separately from content, which would make it possible for me to resolve my issue in a way that would suit me well.  


Light - with clear category headers (in this purple theme)

Screenshot
Dark - the main text is fine, but the purple text in the header doesn't contrast well with a dark background
Screenshot

Using white text and the theme colour as the header background colour instead of the text colour should help to improve readability in dark mode in this particular theme.

However, while that may be true for this theme, the developer needs to have an overall solution which will work in all themes, so may be a little bit more involved than that simple change.

Excellence with a bonus

Jason's second email was when the whole support process stepped up another level.  


This was his reply:


“Hi Julie,

 

Thank you for the additional details and screenshots. They are very helpful and I really appreciate you taking the time to write them up.

 

In addition to having a setting to force AnyList to use a light theme, we'll see if we can tweak the text colors used in the list a bit to make them more legible.

 

Adding the ability to choose a background and font color for the category banner is also something we may also consider doing in the future.

 

I'll be sure to reach out when the ability to force the app to use a light theme is available.”

 

And then, an extra little touch:

 

“On another note, we got a bunch of reusable shopping bags with the AnyList logo on them, and I'd love to send you one to thank you for being a supporter of the app.”

 

My interaction with Jason thus far had already impressed me.  He had 

  • been friendly yet professional throughout

  • made me feel that my feedback was valued

  • probed behind my original question 

  • understood the underlying issue 

  • offered to make quick changes that could make a difference for a relatively small coding effort

  • promised to look into the changes that I had suggested, and 

  • promised to follow up with me once any changes were made (which implies the use of an effective issue tracking system)

 

In addition, to the actual product support, the final paragraph of his email may only have been the offer of a free shopping bag - nothing major in the greater scheme of things, not materially valuable, and of course it incorporates advertising for the product - but it was a lovely and unexpected touch and really made me feel valued out of all proportion to its cost to the company.  It almost certainly made the difference between me writing this post, and just being very happy with the support I’d received.  

 

All in all, this was a fine example of excellent customer support.  


Update

Less than a week after my first email, a new update was available, which fixed the issue. It didn't incorporate the change that I had initially requested (being able to specify light mode), but it did fix the real issue that my lists were less readable in dark mode ... by brightening the colours of the fonts to work better against a dark background.


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