Design with the End (User) In Mind

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Stephen Covey advised us to “begin with the end in mind.” That would seem an obvious place to start whether we are designing a process, a product, or a software application. However, it’s surprising how many designs seem to have anyone but the end user in mind. In this piece we’ll take a look at several examples of where designs fall short, and suggest how good requirements practices can help produce sound designs.


Consider the ubiquitous “clamshell” design of to-go food containers. These are lightweight, come in a variety of sizes, and increasingly are made from vegetable matter that is compostable. On the surface, all positive elements. However, the ridges that typically run around the inside of the bottom and top sections can thwart attempts to get out the final bits of food for which the consumer has paid. It’s clear that the packaging, which stacks together tightly and is inexpensive to transport, was designed for the convenience of the manufacturer and distributor, not the ultimate user of the product.

Related is the plastic packaging that is popular for toys and electronic accessories. These are effective in reducing in-store theft and they protect products during shipping, but can be nearly consumer-proof. Without a sharp box-cutter, one’s hands are at risk when opening this stiff, sharp plastic.

Take a look at many curbside garbage bins supplied by municipalities. All have tapering shapes that make it cheap and easy to stack and transport, but reduce the volume for the end-user. Lining small, compost bins designed for use inside with a couple of folded sheets of newspaper can keep it relatively clean. However, the bottom is rounded and again tapered. Although this makes it easy to transport and store, the shape makes it difficult to line with folded paper liners.

Older customers with arthritis, or those without children in their homes, are grateful that pharmacies have finally begun offering an option for prescription bottles without child-proof caps. The child-proof caps were designed for one specific demographic, but in trying to solve a specific problem pill bottle manufacturers neglected a thorough analysis of all their stakeholders.

An airline passenger can stand at the ticket counter waiting for many minutes as an agent taps on the keyboard for a reserved, purchased ticket for which a seat has already been assigned. If the passenger chooses to use a self-service kiosk instead, the process is completed within a fraction of the time using a credit card, confirmation number or frequent flyer number. One assumes it is expensive for the airline to upgrade the ticket counter terminals to the newer technology used by the kiosks; however, the customer suffers from this decision.

A purchase can be completed from an online store in half the time it takes to purchase the same item at a brick-and-mortar store. Some clerks still fill out sales receipts by hand, especially for big-ticket items like furniture, while the customer waits for them to write in the purchase details. Providing  retail sales personnel with the same capability to complete the transaction with a point-and-click would save the customer time, but still allow them to view an item before they buy it.

What Happened?

In all of these cases, requirements were provided by a company between the manufacturer or service provider and the ultimate end user. The designs meet the needs of the client who is paying the bills, but not the user of the product.

  • Clamshells are purchased by restaurants, not diners;
  • Toys and electronics are packaged by manufacturers for retailers, not for their customers;
  • Garbage containers and green waste bins are bought by municipalities, who often don’t charge the residents for them;
  • Ticketing software is bought by airlines, not passengers;
  • Retail entities often run their online and physical sales out of completely different divisions, with no thought to the consumer who is likely to be exposed to both and have inconsistent experiences.

One fool-proof way to avoid this is to start from the end and work backwards. It’s not simple or easy. Getting a complete picture of your ultimate stakeholders – all of them – can take work.

Ideally, the end users of the product or service should be included in the discussions with the producer and the seller of the product – a three or sometimes four-way conversation might be needed. As always with stakeholder requirements, representatives will need to be found to proxy for the entire population. Make sure each demographic within the population is considered. The age, gender, abilities, income bracket, geography and many other factors will be known to the marketing department of the company selling the product, but the marketing department not be providing requirements to the provider.

Where it’s impractical to include the final users within the requirements process, thought experiments can be useful.  Everyone involved in requirements gathering can imagine what might go wrong if they, their mother or father, their 7-year-old niece or their 6’8” high-school basketball coach tried to use the product, service or process. Brainstorming sessions can result in many real-life simulations and scenarios.

Social media makes it easy for consumers to be heard by hundreds when their needs are not met. Good practices in the requirements process can save a company’s reputation and ultimately make it worth the extra time and effort.


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