Reversing the flow of the Chicago River in 1900.

It's been 30 years since Don Norman published The Design of Everyday Things. You only have to read to page 27 to know how to create perfectly usable everyday products. So why, after all these years, are people still confused by 29 of the 30 cycles on their washing machine? Why are people late for work because the alarm clock failed to go off at 6:00 a.m. but instead went off at 6:00 p.m. just as they got home? And why do we have to risk losing a limb to open clamshell packaging, or burst a blood vessel trying to get the lid off a jar of marmalade?

Why haven't companies made better progress with the usability of everyday consumer products?

Back in 2004 Jakob Nielsen argued that most companies that produce physical and consumer products lack a usability culture, and that they "have a history of ignoring user needs… and ignore the growing usability trend." He was not wrong.

Fifteen years later, many more companies have invested in UX and usability, with many companies building their own UX teams. But I couldn't help wondering what they do with their time, as I pondered my new toaster that has enough buttons, knobs, lights and levers to go into orbit around Jupiter, while at the same time having toasting slots that are too small to fit a slice of bread.

We're not asking for much. We're talking about basic functions here—the kind of functions that are the whole point of buying the product in the first place.

12 Symptoms of dysfunctional design

Design dysfunction doesn't just show up in the finished product: it first shows up in the design process. This is borne out no better than by the number of designers I've met who tell me they have never observed anyone using their products.

Here are 12 symptoms of design dysfunction that I've seen in almost every consumer product company I've worked with. They are symptoms of development teams that have little direct contact with users and so are unable to answer the three most important questions a designer can ask about the people they are designing for: Who are our users? What are they doing? In what context?

  • The development process and design thinking is "product first" rather than "user first". Focus is on the physical product rather than on the experience of using the product.
  • New concepts favor "me too" products based not on user needs but on whatever the competitors are making.
  • The target audience is everyone.
  • Products are feature-heavy and complex and fail to reflect the fact that most everyday user tasks are fast and simple.
  • Development teams create unique "innovative" designs for the sake of it, when conventional designs might serve the user better.
  • Design is a one-shot attempt with little or no design iteration.
  • There is no way to prioritize the design elements that matter to the user over those that don't, and so developers obsess over issues that may have little bearing on actual task completion.
  • Designs are validated by asking people in focus groups, or influential team members, what they think.
  • Project leaders commission usability tests of competitor products then run out of time and money to test the product they are working on.
  • Usability problems are "fixed" by excessive use of labels and instructions, rather than by changing the design.
  • Decision-making proceeds by dint of opinion and political argument.
  • No one on the development team knows there are international standards pertaining to the ease of operation of everyday products.

If you've experienced any of these symptoms, then something is wrong with your design process. There are a number of obvious reasons behind this: not enough UX resources; poor UX leadership; the UX team is marginalized; failure to persuade the development team to take action on UX research findings. These are all common failings.

But there's one other reason that's not quite so obvious: Development teams can't see the end user—because the customer is getting in the way.

What does this mean? We need to back up a bit.

The customer your company really cares about

The first thing to note is that, in most consumer product companies, Marketing owns the product. The design team is engaged by, takes direction from, and delivers to, the marketing department. Marketing creates the initial design brief, determines the timeline, monitors the project from end-to-end, and holds the purse-strings.

The second thing to note is that, for most consumer goods companies, the customer is not the usual consumer or the product end user—it is the retail store. In the USA these are known as "big box" stores. New concepts and product features are primarily dictated by what these mega-customers need on their shelves for this season or that season, and by what they need in order to match competitor products. The actual needs of the user are typically assumed and inferred (though seldom explicitly surfaced and discussed) from what sells the best.

But retailer needs are not user needs, and in this scenario no-one is really looking at the end user. Both the marketing folks and the retailer have a clear line of sight to the end user, but their view is buyer-focused not user-focused.

Although designers and marketers both have an interest in understanding the consumer, their objectives are different. Designers are interested in understanding how people get, or don't get, things done—how they use a product. Designers need low-level detailed information about what the user goals are, what tasks meet those goals, and what functions support those tasks. In contrast, Marketing is interesting in understanding what people will buy. They need higher level demographic information to understand who will buy what, what they will pay, and what influences their purchasing decision.

Although both types of understanding are vital to success, what sells invariably eclipses everything else; and when this happens the user experience—and more specifically the user—gets the short end of the stick. Which, you will recall, is where we came in. And why you overslept this morning. In this scenario, the usability of consumer products suffers because Marketing, in thrall to the all-powerful "big box" retail giant, is blocking the development team's view of the end user.

Reversing the flow

The product development process we've described starts with the retailer and flows "backwards" to Marketing then to Design and development and finally, if lucky, it involves the end user. Instead of starting with the retailer (customer/buyer) we need to start with the user. The development process must travel in the opposite direction via a series of iterative design loops that involve continuous behavioral feedback from users.

We need to reverse the flow.

Some people in your company may think this is reversing the natural order of things but it can be done. Between 1848 and 1900, engineers in Chicago, used a system of canals, locks, dams and gravity to reverse the flow of the Chicago River. Instead of flowing east and carrying Chicago's waste and sewage into Lake Michigan and polluting the drinking water, the river began to flow southwest into the Mississippi, carrying Chicago's waste and sewage downstream. Good news for Chicago. Bad news for St. Louis.

To reverse the flow, we're not going to build dams and locks, we're going to build bridges.

The objective is to change the starting point and the direction of the design process. Obviously, and realistically, we're not talking about taking the retailer out of the process or delivering a concept to the retailer as a fait accompli, we're talking about meeting the retailer in the middle and putting UX research data on the table at the outset, rather than tagging it on the end as an afterthought.

Here are some things that development teams can do to make this happen:

Towards a solution: For UX practitioners…

  • Build a bridge between UX and Marketing. Avoid creating an "us" v. "them" mentality. Marketing may hold most of the cards but they are not your adversary. We've seen many UX teams distance themselves and grumble about Marketing and about market research, and enter into turf wars. This way madness lies. You absolutely must have Marketing on your side. Form an alliance. Build trust. Develop a relationship. Do lunch. Gen up on Marketing 101. Get yourself invited to marketing meetings so you can understand the project from a marketer's point of view.
  • Force the design process into reverse by preempting the retailer. Do some field research—small scale, low budget and fast. Then create user journeys and user stories. Then share your findings with Marketing. Get your ideas and recommendations on the table first before the project requirements get set in stone. Remember, Marketing knows the customer—but discovering the user can be a revelation. It can be a game changer. Now, Marketing can go to the retailer armed with more than just high-level opinion data; they can open discussions with real user needs based on objective behavioral data.
  • Create a UX communication channel. We've found that creating a UX newsletter can be very effective. You can share UX topics, articles, insights, latest research findings, and invitations to your next UX study, and you can invite feedback and start to create a UX buzz. UX needs to get noticed, to put its head above the parapet and start making noise. Make sure you have the marketers and market researchers on your distribution list.
  • Get an audience with the retail customer. This is your ultimate target. But don't try to get there by bypassing Marketing. They still own the product and they own access to the retail customer. Ask if you can accompany them to retailer meetings on a regular basis. Bring UX data. Be the expert witness. Get the retailer excited about UX. This is a win for everyone. You'll know you've nailed it when your UX data changes the way the retailer thinks, and they ask, "Before we go any further, how did this new idea test with your users?"

Towards a solution: For Marketing…

  • Invest in your UX team. Build UX research into your annual budget. Fund UX field research so that your concept innovation is built on real user needs data and not on guesswork.
  • Become a UX advocate. Sell user experience and usability up to the highest echelons of your organization. Marketing is the beating heart of the business. You have the ear of the decision makers, and you have the business numbers. Work with UX to calculate the usability ROI for your company. Use the ROI to create C-level support for a "user first" culture.
  • Commission user needs discovery field research. Get out of the office. Leave the questionnaires behind, and go with your UX researchers into the field. Experience the users' world for yourself.

Allowing the "big box" retail customer to dictate what products a company creates means that the end users' needs are compromised. By thinking "buyer first" Marketing (albeit unwittingly) contributes to the poor experience people have with everyday products and devices. UX practitioners can't change this on their own, but by partnering with Marketing, together they can work to create a "user first" design culture.

About the author

Philip Hodgson

Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) has been a UX researcher for over 25 years. His work has influenced design for the US, European and Asian markets, for everything from banking software and medical devices to store displays, packaging and even baby care products. His book, Think Like a UX Researcher, was published in January 2019.

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This article is tagged iterative design, strategy.

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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher.

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