Whether groceries or widgets, don’t forget the customers.

This is a story about usability, borrowing an analogy from my grocery store. I’ve been shopping at this same store for over fourteen years now. When you move to a new place, you can pick just about any grocery because they are all the same to you in terms of non-familiarity. After you’ve invested some real time in getting to know where everything is, it becomes more of a burden to switch, knowing that you’ll have to invest more time in getting to know the layout all over again. How beautiful is it to know that you can run into your favorite store and put your hands right on the three things that you need and get out of there? The busier you get, the more things you are juggling, the more critical this becomes. As a matter of fact, time becomes so important that you’re often willing to pay more for a few items just to avoid making multiple stops and save that time.

About two years ago, maybe three but it seems like less, my grocery store moved the cheese. And the orange juice. And the bread. As a matter of fact, they moved the whole store, because some consulting company had convinced them that they needed a new layout for a more progressive look or something. After they did this, I got to know a lot of shoppers in the aisles as we all stumbled around trying to figure out where we were and where they’d put the products we needed. We all complained, thought it was ridiculous, didn’t see the benefit of the move, but we eventually adjusted and were starting to find our way around again easily.

Then they did it again recently. I walked in one day to find them tearing all of the aisles up again, putting products in carts and marking them for clearance. I went into a panic, asking an employee why they were rearranging the store again. She responded by telling me that some consultancy had studied women’s shopping behaviors and pitched a new layout that was supposed to be more intuitive for women. Several weeks went by until they were finished. When they were, I found myself commisserating with fellow customers again in the aisles, all of us agreeing it was the most ridiculous thing we’d ever seen and mad that it was taking us three to four times longer to get our shopping done.

Is this intuitive for anyone, much less women as a single customer base: The little spice packets for things like stew and tacos are in a different aisle from the rest of the spices. Dried raisins are with cereal, but other dried fruit are off in some other aisle. Organically sourced  cereals and snacks are several aisles away from the rest of their category counterparts.

It got so bad that within a very short time, the store hired an army of extra help wearing bright yellow shirts emblazoned with the words “I Can Help!” on them. Their sole  purpose was to effect the change management needed and cut down on the frustration of shoppers by directing them to products in aisles where they’d never have guessed their quarry would be. These people seemed to have weathered a storm of snide commentary from customers in the course of their navigating duties, but I must commend them for retaining their smiles in the process. One time, I saw two managerial-looking gentlemen wandering around surveying the process, so I stopped and gave them a piece of my mind. The store manager told me that it wasn’t his idea.

At the KM World Conference in November of 2009, one of the keynote speakers – I think it was Andrew McAfee – said that any new tool that you introduce to your stakeholders should be ten times better than whatever you’re replacing or you shouldn’t bother. Of course, in regard to technology this is particularly true because innovation is occurring so rapidly in that area, but I think it is a good question to ask ourselves whenever we are changing things for our customers, regardless of product. Facebook has found this out when they’ve changed their interface. Coca Cola found this out when they changed their formula and packaging for their signature product. Drew Carey claimed years ago that he had to go back to wearing his glasses even though he’d had lasik surgery, because his fans didn’t recognize him.

When the grocery store changes the layout, they put themselves back in the unfamiliar category along with all of the other available stores. It’s as though I’m new to the area again and free to choose whichever store I’d like, because I’m going to have to invest time to relearn the layout regardless. It’s like having a winning stack of chips at poker and putting the stack back out in the middle of the table again. Even worse, the woman who told me that the new design was ostensibly “woman friendly” also told me that the store was now considered a concept test store, so they might change it whenever they had these silly ideas or seemingly nothing else to do – like source good products at reasonable prices. I’m seriously considering taking my fourteen year purchasing habit elsewhere.

Whether it’s a grocery store or a user interface, talk to your customers ahead of time and get their opinion. Let them tell you whether what you’re about to do is ten times better than what you’re replacing. Otherwise, you’re putting your chips back out on the table.


About diannawiggins

Information and Knowledge Management professional with experience from Fortune 500 and nonprofit industries. I exude a love of learning and
This entry was posted in Customer Service, Information profession, Technology, Usability and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Whether groceries or widgets, don’t forget the customers.

  1. Randy Moore says:

    Great post Dianna. Totally agree. So much is done without asking the customer – or user. We hire experts thinking that’s the right thing to do but sometimes it’s not and we need to know which course is right.


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