A Lesson in Half-Design


There is an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune this morning regarding a new milk jug that has just been rolled out to Wal-Mart and Costco. I won't get into all the specifics of what's good and bad about the introduction - but suffice to say that the product designers had one customer in mind: Milk producers and distributors. Whether you've realized it or not, milk is expensive to ship, and a lot of that expense has been dictated by the type of plastic container that's typically been used for a gallon of milk. Because of the shape, it is not possible to stack for shipment, thus requiring crates. These crates carry a lot of unused space and that increases the inefficiency of transporting milk cheaply. With fuel cost rising and food cost increasing as well, making successful cost savings to packaging can have a big impact. In fact, the new jugs lower the cost of a gallon of milk from $2.58 a gallon to $2.18 (a savings of just over 15%). Not only that, the new design has cut labor in half and water use (for cleaning the crates which birds love to roost in) by 60 to 70 percent. So, lower fuel use, lower water use, cheaper to purchase, and more convenient to stack and store. What's not to like?

Well, for one thing, it doesn't work for the customer.

It seems that the jug is extremely difficult to pour from and almost impossible for children to use. Costco even has a representatives demonstating the use of the jug in store who informs shoppers that the correct pouring technique is a "rock-and-pour instead of a lift-and-tip." Shoppers are not convinced.

Of course with any big change to a common product there will be initial resistance to adoption. But the issue that I find interesting and all too common is that it was obvious that a large amount of effort was put into redesigning an artifact that affects a great deal of people. But, as is all too often the case, the goal of the design was short-sighted. Milk producers pretty much nailed the design requirements for stacking, transport, and resource savings. But did anyone consider those that need to actually use the product that is being shipped? It seems impossible that the designers, or even those who sponsored the change, didn't try to use the jug themselves. So it appears that it was decided that if anyone needed to compromise on usability, it would be the people who had to use the jug day to day.

There is a hubris to design that often disregards those that we are ultimately designing for. Of course any design problem comes with acceptable compromise - you just can't please everyone all the time. But this is a case where the key aspect of a milk jug (pouring the milk where you want to as easily as possible) wasn't actually one of the key design goals. The customer was cut out of the equation. But this type of one-sided design isn't reserved for just cutting out the consumer. In customer service organizations processes and systems are often designed with the end user in mind (fantastic!), but completely disregard the internal user (whoops!). Call centers are plagued by issues where customer service representatives need to go through complex work-arounds to actually help their clients. Or the informal networks that develop in bureaucracies to get around limited access to needed resources (Call Ted in processing, he knows what to do...). We've all experienced these issues, likely on both sides of the coin. What keeps us building half-sucessful designs?

A major factor is that most design challenges are part of a larger goal and that goal is often determined by people outside of managing a user's experience. In the case of the Costco milk jug, it was likely designed under the direction of an operations manager who had a very specific need - cut costs. And cut cost they did. It remains to be seen if they also will end up cutting their own profits if consumers refuse to adopt the ill-designed jug. So how could this be avoided?

As designers, we need to be much more concerned with the complete picture of the work that we do. Personally, I am a strong advocate that design as a method needs to play a much stronger role in the actual day-to-day management and decision making of all organizations, both private and governmental. The role of design will be expanded to include all aspects of business and public policy. To do this, those that are playing lead roles for these organizations will need to rely on design strategy, development, and integration on a whole new level than what they are used to. This also invites the traditional designer to step up to roles not typically adopted, or even desired, to influence decision making where it matters. The end result should be a much more "user" focused world. Products would be designed not just for the consumer, but also for the environment, for processing, for cost, for support staff, for shareholders. You see where this is going.

Should design evolve into the role of making and influencing key decisions, it will require designers who ensure all aspects of a design problem and all those who would be affected by it are considered. The milk manufacturing and distribution business has a vested interest in solving a major problem in cost savings and their new jug has adressed that narrow aspect almost completely. However, they seem to have created another problem that even the most perfunctory testing would have revealed. The opportunity for designing to the "whole problem" was not entertained. The shame is that a "whole problem" approach is not de rigueur for most industries.