The Customer Is Always Write

One of the most famous mantras of the retail and service industries is “The customer is always right.” Like with many, this bite-sized mantra works because there is a kernel of insight and truth to it. That said, anyone who’s ever worked in either industry can attest to it not being always true.

As a product designer your job is to entertain the customer’s requests or demands; your responsibility is to not simply do as they wish, but to suss out what they truly need, and then design a solution for them that also takes into consideration the myriad other requirements you have to comply with.

Whether you design physical or digital products, and whether you’re part of the retail, service or some other industry, balancing customer requests is rarely easy. Often, the easy solution is neglecting to take any action at all. Inaction is a form of action, in that you’re choosing not to do something. In a designer’s case it’s a decision not to add or address a product feature.

There is a parallel to this that writers are all too familiar with.

A long time ago a friend of mine showed me her work room, a simple study with a desk covered with notepads, various sheets of paper, the odd pen. An old iMac adorned it; her primary writing instrument. We’d been discussing the challenges a writer faces; a title she held professionally, and one that I aspired to hold one day as well. I had brought up writer’s block, something I faced as a blogger all the same, and in response she took me to her study. Behind the iMac, directly in her line of sight if she looked up, was a printed sheet of paper with a scant two words, bold but not overbearing: “Just write.”

The common advice for writers is to just write, write, write, because you can always rewrite a sentence once you know what’s wrong with it. So write terrible prose with imagined splendor. Screw up grammar with delight. Typo liek there’s no tomorrow. You can fix it in post.

The same holds true with product design, but the impact of it is much greater. If you just design a feature, you still impose very real work on the project and/or product managers, the developers, the Q&A team, and so forth. Plus, you don’t generally “just design” anyway: you want your UX team to research and understand the real user needs first, so there’s already the barrier of someone else having to do work before you even get to yours.

It becomes so, so much easier to choose inaction over going down a path you don’t know the destination of, just because the customer is asking for it.

This is where I want to propose a slightly tweaked version of the mantra I mentioned at the start:

The customer is always right about asking.

Much like “the customer is always right,” the web & software design industries have long had a mantra that was equally incomplete: “the customer doesn’t know what they need.” It goes back to the much older adage of the not-quite Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

It’s true that customers will often ask for something they don’t actually need, and in the spirit of staying focused your job as designer (or founder, or responsible party of any kind) is to always bring it back to what the customer needs.

But there are times when we dismiss customers’ requests for reasons not quite sound. Whether it’s falling prey to the belief the customer “doesn’t know what they need,” choosing inaction due to it being the easiest path, or simply deciding not to prioritize something because you can’t quite figure out how to address the problem without impeding on other (business) concerns, there will be times where that decision was the wrong one.

There are times you should just write. Try, fail, get it all wrong. Then: fix it in post.

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