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To Design Better Products, Hit the Road
 

The next time you need inspiration, take a business trip. There's no better source of terrible (and brilliant) design than the travel industry.

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Maybe you think you already design good products--or even great products. You don't hear many complaints in any case, so whatever you're doing must be working, right?

Maybe... but how do you really know? When was the last time you used your own products or watched your customers use them?

This point was driven home recently when I was traveling for business. Companies that cater to travelers must create products and services that satisfy the widest group of people possible. When it works, it's terrific. But, as most people know, often it doesn't work. Here are a few recent encounters I had with bad (and good) designs--and what you can take away for your business.

Are you designing for yourself or the customer?

I was in the W Atlanta Buckhead, getting ready for a talk. Time for a shower in a most attractive looking bathroom. But when I was ready to turn on the water, I realized that there was an unmovable glass panel between me and the faucet. That meant there was no way to turn on the water and adjust the temperature without getting in the shower and putting yourself in the direct path of first cold, then hot, and then finally the Goldilocks-approved just right temperature.

When checking out, I mentioned the problem to someone at the desk who said the showers generated the largest number of complaints from guests. It seemed as though the designers had focused solely on expressing themselves. But that's not the point of product or service design. You want to express the wishes of the user, whether they realize what they want or not.

Try, try, and try it again.

Another bathroom story, this time in the Westin Galleria in Dallas. At first glance, the facilities seemed nicely apportioned. That is, until I got into the details of using them. A shaving and makeup mirror? Not a big problem that I had to plug it in myself instead it being permanently wired. The real issue was that it sat on the sink counter with a short leash. It magnified, sure, but if you're as nearsighted as I am, you'd have to bend over to get close enough for it to be useful.

The shower was another example. There were two shower heads for a larger volume of water if you wanted it--nice touch. The glass door slid open. (W, take notice.) However, the soap dish was slotted instead of solid. It seemed sensible at first, as it keeps the soap from sitting in a pool of water. But the soap itself was shaped like a large leaf and just thin enough to easily drop through. I had to place it carefully so that I didn't send the soap sliding through the dish and down to my feet.

In either case, it would have made sense for the company to set up one bathroom and have someone test it from top to bottom. It's called prototyping. By actually trying what you plan to sell, you can find any surprises that might make a customer work too hard or think less of your brand.

It's all in the details.

Two examples here, of doing things right by paying attention to the small details that make the difference between acceptable and outstanding. One is Delta Airlines. Many of its terminals have charging stations for smartphones and tablets, with both USB and regular electrical plugs. Now there's a company whose management looked around in airports and saw people on the floor, huddling next to the outlets. Of course, more charging stations would be better, as the available ones can get maxed out quickly, but it's moving in the right direction.

But for attention to detail, there are few businesses that can match The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, NC. I stayed there once for a business meeting and was stunned at how thorough the staff was. Walk in for the first time and someone personally guides you to the elevator, pointing out the location of bar, restaurant, and other features. Retire for the evening and find that not only did someone turn down the covers, but he or she left a robe and slippers, set out the TV remote and channel guide, and tuned in a station that showed pictures of the attractive grounds and sounds of nature. You can bet that someone walked through every aspect and considered things from the customer's point of view. That's a habit that make create a great, and lucrative, business.

Any time you're in a demanding situation as a customer, pay attention to what irks you or puts a smile on your face. And then immediately think of your business: Are you putting your customers through a similar experience?

Last updated: Jul 12, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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