Write Lightning is a blog from writer Deb Thompson.
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Wed, May 19 2004

Soda For Socialists

I loved what Eric wrote today about designing things with the idea of putting the user first. As a college student, I once worked in production for a wholesale bakery in Tennessee, and the electricians would come in now and then and watch us work. Then they would go wherever it was they went, and they would design devices to try to improve the efficiency with which we handled the packaging of the baked and cooled products. What they forgot was that almost all of them were male, and (by the averages of gender) tall. Most of us were female, and (by the same law) shorter than they were. On one occasion these guys came up with a button we could use to stop the conveyor belt by leaning on it with our leg instead of having to reach out with our hand. The button had to be placed to the side of where we usually stood, because A) it would have been uncomfortable, and B) we would have bumped it without intending to do so. So, the electricians placed it to one side, forgetting that one step to the left was two or three steps for the vertically-challenged. When they installed the button and turned us loose to use it, they stepped back ready to be applauded for their efforts. Instead, one very outspoken worker gave them an earful about how far away the button was, and how they had not consulted us to see what the best placement of such a button might be. The electricians were truly stunned. It had never occurred to them to come to us first and talk to us about what our needs were as users and to incorporate our needs into their design. They thought they could observe our actions and come up with answers based on their interpretation of those actions, and they thought that we would be grateful. They did listen to us at that point, and eventually came up with a very useful button better suited to people of varying heights.

In the case of Eric's soft drink distributer rep, the whole idea of assumimg what's best for the user is taken to a new level of absurdity when a company decides to put a handle on the package for convenience, and then hides that handle from the consumer/user because they feel the consumer can't deal with the handle properly. The company apparently isn't ready to take their responsibility seriously enough to recall the packages with their badly designed handle. They prefer to inconvenience the consumer/user even further, and then they stoop to insulting the consumer/user by stubbornly referring to their own actions as "company policy".

Somewhere along the way it seems as though marketing to people has come to mean marketing down to people. We used to be able to have a say with our pocketbook, but with the current system of industry lobbying and other political underpinnings, the idea of mutual respect and satisfaction between maker/designer and consumer/user may well become an unattainable goal. If capitalism is the way we want to live, we'd better be careful that we don't become socialists in our quiet acceptance of being told as consumers what's best for us.

posted at: 21:06 | category: /Miscellaneous | link to this entry

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