Who cares if it doesn’t work?

There is often a huge gulf between the way in which a product was intended to be used and the way it actually is. Product designers need to experience first-hand how their creations work in the real world if they are to improve future designs.

If a consumer product doesn’t work well, it is likely to become the subject of online reviews, and any feedback will eventually find its way back to the designers one way or another. At the very least, the consumer experience is likely to (negatively) affect the prospects of repurchase. But for products or experiences which are not so obviously linked to consumer purchase, there are likely to be fewer repercussions. Who really cares if it doesn’t work?


It’s easy for busy designers to “experience” products through a proxy. Deep-dive studies certainly have their place in delivering consumer insight, but they’re no substitute for getting out there and experiencing it first-hand. Products such as those in communal use, or in public spaces can perhaps benefit even more from first-hand review because of the scarcity of direct feedback.

We’ve all experienced an unreliable vending machine, a badly-designed car park, inadequate street signs or a useless hand-drier. What effect did it have on us as users? Probably frustration and/ or irritation – but nothing more. As mere users, rather than purchasers our scope for meaningful action is limited. In many cases the “culprit” is anonymous, but even knowing the name doesn’t serve any purpose. The option of voting with our feet is somewhat academic, as we don’t explicitly choose to use those products.

The ticket machine in the picture is an example of a product which appears to have escaped the attention of the designers in any follow-up review. It takes payment for “Pay on Foot” parking tickets, and constantly has a stream of paper receipts filling the coin hopper – as can be seen from the picture. Despite the fact that users mostly don’t want receipts, they are automatically dispensed for every transaction; “Official” receipts (which show full breakdown of costs including tax etc) are only issued when the user presses the on-screen “Receipt” button. So the hopper is usually full of unwanted receipts.

A service contract ensures the machine is regularly emptied, cleaned, maintained and generally kept in good working order. Every day an operator empties the stack of unwanted receipts into a nearby bin, replaces the roll of paper and cleans the touch-screen. How would the designer ever know what’s going on? How would s/he ever know to change the receipt processes?

This “distance” between the designer and the product is important. It represents an invisible barrier which restricts the designer’s ability to improve the product. It often happens for products which aren’t consumer-products. Products which are perhaps in regular use but not by those who chose the product.

It might not be glamorous work; it might not be convenient; and it won’t always be easy to gather – but it is at least interesting and insightful. The value of this first-hand experience must not be ignored. Designers who strive to narrow the gulf are likely to deliver better product. And although it’s unlikely to affect the business results of the organisations themselves, improving customer experience raises the bar everywhere.


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