The UX of a cheese sandwich

In Brussels, Yelp insists the best place for a sandwich is a hole-in-the-wall above the Marche aux Herbs named for its owner, Tonton Garby. The line never seems long... only it is, because his average transaction time is something like 10 minutes. His sandwiches are cheap -- 3-6€ -- and all cheese (good cheese, yes, but cheese nonetheless). But that's not why they come. They come for Monsieur Garby.

Garby insists, through many signs, gestures, and languages, that he wants his customers to be happy. He's careful about picking cheese, friendly to a level that makes Americans feel inadequate, and always quick to remind you that if you're unhappy he will give you your money back.

Also, his sandwiches are not half bad. Mine was chevre encrusted in pistachios, green apples, and local honey. It was heaven.

When I was a kid in Oklahoma, John F. Lawhon was a mainstay of local TV. He'd come on during the news and tell you this sofa set was $499 today only, so you better come on down. One day, he sold off his furniture empire and retired. The next day, he was already bored. So he started talking to his old salespeople to understand what made them successful, what made them different from the run-of-the-mill salesperson. The result was a series of books on retail sales that became the standard textbooks in many business college classrooms.

Lawhon's theory was based on the radical idea that a salesperson needed to identify what the customer needed, show them the options, and help them make a selection they would be happy with. The customer had to feel confident that they were the one making the choice, and that the choice was the right one. No high pressure, and no pushing them into this sofa or that. In fact, he found that the best salespeople never got to the “pitch” or the “close” — instead, they reiterated all the ways the customer’s selection was going to work for them.

Lawhon found that happy customers are the best customers: If they are pleased with their choice, they will return and buy again, and they will recommend him to their friends. Being known for selection, fair prices, and a great experience was better in the long run than raking in money hand over fist on deals that left customers unhappy.

In the user experience world, service design is all the rage. (No, service design isn’t new, but when applied to UX, it is.) The UX community talks of creating massive, deep, systematic experiences that extend well beyond the the pixel-pushing pigeonhole we've been crammed into. UX is way bigger than simple images, understand. It's no wonder the Disney MagicBand garners so much hype in the design world.

So now we show how users and personas participate in the overall process of a system, when they engage, how those engagements work. We talk about uniforms and physical spaces as much as databases and web experiences.

On the one hand, this seems like the right thing to do. We want big, engrossing experiences! Look at all the ways the MagicBand works and all the different interactions!

On the other hand… this thinking isn’t simple. Take the London Underground’s “reclassification” of stations. Some are gateways, places that expect lots of clueless tourists. Others are local, places where the riders know how the system works and need no help. From an Pareto 80-20 view of the world, this makes sense.

But what happens when a “local” station gets an influx of tourists? What happens when a “gateway” station is also a heavy interchange station and all that “extra help” interferes? How does the system flex and morph to handle those situations which don't follow the pattern?

What are people to the system? Personas? Or humans? Does the system treat each interaction as an opportunity to make the life of a customer better, or as a theoretical transaction between Walter The Station Agent persona and Sophie The Out-of-Towner persona?

I'm sure Transport for London has thought about this -- they're systems thinkers. But what about the rest of the design world? Do we think about the transactions that happen in our systems, or do we think about the people?

Garby focuses on simple, long interactions to promote customer happiness. Lawhon focused on simple, smart interactions designed to identify customers needs… which ultimately lead to customer happiness.

We talk of delight. We talk of service design. We talk of “user experience.” But what we really want is happy customers -- humans -- whose engagements with our creations are at once positive and seamless. 600 page reports and plotter paper sized user journeys can’t create that, only inform.

What can create it is focusing on those singular moments where a person, in need of something, receives it. Whether it’s support, information, or maybe just a “You look confused — how can I help?” inquiry, it needs to remain simple, real, and human.

Tonton Garby gets it with cheese sandwiches. John F. Lawhon got it with sofas. Do we get it with our websites and wearables?

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