There was a cartoon circulating in the 1970s, which you may have seen, with five or six panels, each one showing a tree with a swing hanging from it, but in various different forms and designs, some of them pretty outlandish. The first panel, shown here, was titled “What the Designers Suggested” — a clearly unworkable swing for anybody. Then in succeeding panels: ” What the engineers designed”. “What the marketing department promoted”. What the sales team ordered”. “What the factory built”. ” What the field services finally installed”.
And finally: “What the customer originally wanted”.
I remembered this cartoon recently when I was thinking about why it is so difficult to design for people other than yourself.
Designing for yourself is easy; most of us do it all the time. Of course, we know exactly what we want.
The most difficult part of designing something for somebody else, is making sure that the vision in one mind is identical to the vision in the other. This sort of goes without saying, is obvious, needn’t be repeated, and of course everybody knows it; but if that’s so, then why so many horror stories about delivering products that aren’t what had been asked for? I have had a few of those stories myself (I’d call them failures, but of course I did leave the customers happy in the end.) In each case, I’ve been surprised at the irony: the aspect of the design where our minds had seen different results, was never anything that I had worried about or fretted over myself, but always something I had assumed was correct right from the start.
Apparently it’s harder than it seems for two people to know that they’re visualizing the same thing. It’s a safe bet that if I were to say ” rustic pine furniture” to you, the image that comes to your mind would look nothing like the one in mine.
Worse yet, the vision in both of our minds would probably only vaguely look like the actual piece that we were thinking about. It’s amazing how the mind itself idealizes and alters images of the real world. It’s hard for the real world to live up to our fantasies.
If I’ve learned anything from all of this, it has been to use every possible tool to ensure beforehand that the two minds are one. A Vulcan mind meld, of course. I translate the vision that’s in my mind into some sort of picture or model or descriptive words or sounds or smells that I can then show to the customer. The closer the model is to the real thing, the fewer surprises there are likely to be later.
You can’t get every little detail, of course, but you don’t need to. Even a simple drawing can sometimes be enough to see that, “Oh, boy, this is nothing at all like what I was thinking!”
Words are okay, but a photo is worth 1000 of them. Photos can be drawn on with magic markers, for a really simple visual. Computer programs can do an excellent job of building pictures or models; in fact, Google has a free program called SketchUp that is fairly easy to learn to use, where you can build simple models in a three-dimensional way, so that you can rotate, move in and out, view the drawing from different angles. (You can just go on your browser and Google “Google SketchUp”. )
So what was it the customer wanted again?