Somebody Else's Problem? Issue Tracking and the Bystander Effect

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Douglas Adams is one of my favorite authors, responsible for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Adams was my first introduction to British humour, and I’ve always appreciated his accurate observations of how people think and act.

For example, in the third book of the series (Life, the Universe and Everything), Adams features a starship that resembles an Italian pizzeria. The ship includes a Star Trek-style cloaking device to hide itself, utilizing a technology called an SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem) field:

An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem…. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.

The Bystander Effect

There’s actually a psychological term for an SEP field: the bystander effect. When a group of people observes an emergency like a fire or a mugging, there’s a tendency for them to believe that someone else has the situation under control. Someone else is probably calling the fire department. Somebody else will probably find a police officer.

The bystander effect is apparent in the business world, too. Let’s say you have two lists of tasks: one list is directly assigned to you, while the other is “up for grabs” by anyone on your team. Psychologically, you’re more likely to cross things off your own list before you worry with the team list.

Not it.
“Not it.”

We considered the bystander effect when we designed DoneDone. When issues are created, they must be assigned to at least one user, ensuring that someone is the responsible point-of-contact. When someone “owns” an issue, it’s much more likely that it will be resolved quickly.

Most DoneDone users agree – while developing our new Public Issues feature, we surveyed many of our users who had expressed an interest in using DoneDone for customer support. 65% of respondents specifically requested that support issues be assigned to a default user over an “unassigned” list.

So, when customer support requests are logged, they’re always assigned to a default user. This gatekeeper can send a quick acknowledgement to the customer, and then reassign the issue to the appropriate team member in DoneDone. Nothing gets stuck in an “unassigned” queue, and your customers will love your super-fast response time.

(But, if you would like to create an “unassigned” queue, you can get around this by creating a dummy user in DoneDone, and setting that user as the gatekeeper. Your team members can then reassign themselves to the dummy user’s issues.)

Putting Your Name on Accountability

We also reinforce accountability with DoneDone’s notification messages. Each time you make a change to an issue, add a comment, or send a reply to a customer, your name is included as part of the message. This lets your team know who’s taking care of business, and gives your customers a personal connection to your team members (most people will prefer to talk to “Jane Smith” over “Acme Corporation Support”).

So do your best to avoid the bystander effect when working with both your team and your customers. Try DoneDone free for 30 days to efficiently track issues and customer support requests.

Questions or comments? Talk to us via email or Twitter.

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