(Reading time: ~20 minutes + 1 minute video)
This little intro will help you massively on your way towards product ownership. You will observe some first methods in action and see how user-centricity feels as a state of mind.
From product-focus to user-centricity
In April 2011, Don Norman gave a speech at Standord University (you will find the video at the bottom of the page). In his speech, the old design and usability guru provides a beautiful example for the shift from a product focussed mindset to user-centricity. On this page, I will invite you to feel this shift too.
The cool thing is that Norman starts with a very simple example by showing a product that everyone can relate to. That’s why I will do the same here and, of course, research it a bit further. All this will illustrate the mindset of user-centricity as an approach to product development which is so important for your role.
Now, please have a look at the following image:
Yes, you are looking at a salt and pepper shaker. Simple product, isn’t it? Ok, so: Which one is for salt? 🙂
Imagine that you are sitting on your dining table, your meal tastes a little bit stale and boring which makes you consider adding some salt. Which of the shakers will you grab?
Will you grab the one of the left, because you think the salt is in the shaker with just one hole? Or will you grab the shaker on the right because you expect the salt to be in the shaker with eight holes? It’s the single difference that you can spot and the single clue that you have.
Well, and there we are: Which one is for salt?
The correct shaker (product-focused mindset)
Ok, for which one did you go?
You know, I wanted to find out which one is the correct shaker for salt. That’s why I did some secondary research. I went through some discussions on the internet, read a PDF for Catering Managers and I wrote three catering schools. Finally, I got the answer: The shaker with one hole is meant to be the shaker for salt. Because salt has a crystal structure and therefore it is heavier than pepper. That’s why salt comes out more easily and that’s why the shaker for salt has just one hole. A pepper shaker, on the other hand, usually comes with more holes because pepper is very lightweight and tends to get stuck from time to time. Crystal clear, isn’t it?
Well, to be honest: I went for the shaker with eight holes. And according to the “correct product” mindset aka. expert opinion: I took the wrong one. 🙁
Gathering some data
When I was asking the same question to some of my friends, I got completely different answers too. That’s why I thought I should research the topic a bit further. It’s such a simple product, but quite a tricky question, isn’t it?
Secondary research normally works nicely as a first step. But nothing beats real user research! User research helps me a lot to answer open questions in product development especially regarding topics like feature prioritisation, market entry, or when it comes to general design decisions (which we will cover later). And, I was sure, it would prove itself useful in uncovering the secrets of the salt and pepper shakers too! 😉
That’s why I went out in the field, doing some primary research on my own, and asked a total number of 50 possible salt and pepper shaker users. (Some people may argue now that this sample size isn’t large enough for proper statistical insights. Well, let me argue back: A sample of five users is better than a sample of zero in user testing. You are not in the math class at your university anymore, this is real life now! 😛 We will speak about sample sizes and other topics later too.)
Ok, what did I do? I took the “Moto” salt and pepper shakers (photo above) and went to restaurants, cafes, and even to a kindergarten – totally felt like Indiana Jones! And I placed the salt and pepper shakers in front of each test user, introduced myself, and asked my biggest question. I said: “Imagine, my friend, you are looking for salt. Which shaker will you grab?”
And I noted the results as nothing is better than proper explanatory user research to discover what humans feel, think, and expect (we will cover some different methods later too).
Here is what I found out:
Well, as you can see, the result isn’t as crystal clear as the product experts in their catering schools or the designers of the “Moto” salt and pepper shaker may expect: 52 % of all participants believe the shaker with one hole is for salt, 48 % would go for the one with eight holes when looking for salt.
Looking at it from a pure product expert perspective, 48 % of all users gave the wrong answer.
But my brain went: “Wow!” Because that’s somehow exactly what I expected: As the product itself doesn’t offer any signifiers except the different number of holes, it’s hard for a user to determine which one holds the salt and which one holds the pepper (at least if you don’t know the expert theory). In short: This creates a possible rate to get it right or wrong of 50:50. In the end, it’s trial and error.
Let’s mine the data a bit further. Why? Because it’s always a good thing to do.
Mining the data
When I was gathering the data, I spoke with 24 users who described themselves as female, and 26 users who described themselves as male. Maybe we can spot some gender-based differences in the answers?
Well, I got an exact 50:50 result from the female users.
And nope, also the answers of the male user segment are roughly divided by a ratio of 50:50 (53,8 % for 1 hole, 46,2 % for 8 holes). They didn’t have a clue either.
But how could half of the users be wrong when using such a simple product? Maybe they aren’t?
Even more interesting, when asking my question, I got answers like that (five random examples):
- “I chose the shaker with one hole [correct!] because otherwise, I might get too much salt on my food.”
- “I will choose the shaker with eight holes [wrong!]. The other shaker would not provide enough salt.”
- “The one with eight holes is for salt [wrong!], I know this from restaurants. You need to be careful with pepper.”
- “I think it’s the shaker with one hole [correct!], we filled it at a girlfriend’s place like that.”
- “I would choose the shaker with eight holes [wrong!], the shaker with one hole doesn’t make sense for me at all. The hole is much too small!”
My mind went “wow!” again. They had no clue at all! Even though some users got it right (according to the expert opinion), it was more or less pure luck. They didn’t know about the expert theory, crystal structure and never thought about sprinkle speed! What you could see are rather risk avoidance strategies (if I get it wrong, I don’t want to get it too wrong -> that’s why I will go for one hole) than catering knowledge.
Can you imagine, dear experts? Your users are rather looking at the problem from their specific usage situation (wanting less salt, wanting more salt, distorted experiences, subjective opinions).
Beautiful, isn’t it?
Somehow I felt the need to mine the data even further. Because normally it makes sense to look at your findings from the perspective of different user types and personas. And while I spoke with my test users, four different user groups began to emerge:
- Users who use both salt and pepper for their food.
- Users who use just salt.
- Users who use just pepper. (Actually, I didn’t find a single user of this group, but I conclude that there must be some.)
- Users who use none of the shakers, because they don’t.
First, let’s look at the answers provided by users who normally use both shakers.
Well, nothing new: Out of the users who use both, salt and pepper, I got a rough 50:50 split again (46,7 % for 1 hole, 53,3 % for eight holes).
Maybe we find something special when we look at the users who just use salt?
Wow! Now, look at this: 75 % of the “only salt” users gave the correct answer, didn’t they?
And as there was not a single user that I interviewed who just uses pepper, let’s go for the data segment of users that neither use salt, nor pepper:
Crazy, isn’t it? None of them gave the “correct” answer.
You may conclude now that the best-educated users are the “only salt” ones, and that the users who don’t use any of the shakers got it wrong because they simply don’t use them. Sound reasonable, doesn’t it? (Spoiler alert: Nope.)
Now, better have a seat before you continue! Because here comes the most impressive thing I discovered during my research and data segmentation. Look at the answers I got from the five pre-school children that I researched at the kindergarten:
Yes, dear catering experts and “Moto” designers, you are not dreaming! There is a user segment that got your product 100 % right: The five pre-schoolers (age 4-5). Something to note here?
None of them ever used pepper. They even told me that they will never ever use pepper in their whole life! Because it tastes horrible, will burn their tiny mouth, and, very likely, will make their head explode (exact answer).
They have a good reason why they go for the shaker with just one hole too. Because salt is so crazily fast! While explaining it to me, one of the pre-schoolers even started to run around as fast as she could to show how fast salt actually is. ❤️ And they are not allowed to use a lot of salt by their parents, that’s why they will go for the shaker with just one hole.
The pre-schoolers definitely got a point here! Because surprisingly, what they tell is very close to the correct answer given by the product experts during my secondary research. At least they mentioned the sprinkle speed, didn’t they?
User testing with children is always best! (No joke, true story.)
Answering the question with user-centricity
Now let’s see what went wrong. What we have are:
- Experts on the one hand who have a clear reason for their product design.
- Users on the other hand who have no idea about the expert’s reason or thoughts and therefore struggle with the design (trial and error).
- Answers and feedback from user research that clearly illustrate this gap.
The question “Which is the correct shaker for salt?” is a hard one, because it’s the wrong question. We have seen that the expert theory is not common knowledge at all (well, except maybe for pre-schoolers). And therefore it’s nothing your product’s usability should depend on too much.
Even the answers of the user segment that actually works or worked previously in the catering industry don’t indicate any clue for the underlying theory as common knowledge:
In short: There is so much space to get it wrong. But is this the fault of the user? Definitely not. To be honest, it’s a result of bad design that may look nice but makes our life harder. There is no need for trial and error when using such a simple product as a salt shaker.
The answer for “right shaker” doesn’t depend on expert opinion, it depends on three things:
- The user who fills the shaker.
- The user who grabs the shaker to sprinkle salt above her meal.
- The shaker’s design that either supports discoverability or hinders you from the correct choice.
And therefore the question itself was wrong. It could be answered just out of a product perspective. But the answers provided by the product’s actual users proved this approach to be wrong.
None of the shakers is the ultimate correct or wrong shaker for salt. Because the answer depends on the user plus the usage situation in relation the shaker’s design. And congratulation: Getting this right was your first step towards user-centricity!
Let’s check some other designs
In design, there are affordances and signifiers:
Affordances determine what actions are possible. Signifiers communicate where the action should take place. We need both.Don Norman: The Design of Everyday Things – Revised and Expanded Edition, 2013
Now, what are the main affordances of a salt and pepper shaker?
- It provides space that you can fill with salt or pepper (action: to fill).
- This space holds and stores salt or pepper (action: to store).
- Further you can grab it, lift it up, and shake it to sprinkle salt or pepper over your meal (action: to sprinkle).
Simple and straight forward. The issue in our example are signifiers that are not clear enough:
The single difference between the two shakers is the number of holes. And of course, there is some reasoning behind it: The design is very clear and some experts may even know which one is expected to be the salt shaker and which one is for pepper. But it offers so much space for error (a 50:50 chance as we have seen above) because the signifiers are not clear for everyone. Like this, you create a beautiful and neat product. But it doesn’t work very well.
Looking at this design, you will see additional signifiers:
Again, you are looking at a salt and pepper shaker. The one with fewer holes is for salt, the one with more holes is for pepper (as we have learned above). But next to the number of holes, the designer added clear signifiers to the product: You can read “Salt” on the left shaker, and “Pepper” on the right shaker. Easy and clear now, isn’t it?
Further, the ceramic material offers a different look and feel compared to the shakers of the “Moto” collection which are made out of stainless steel. This means that you should not let the ceramic shakers fall down as their material doesn’t “afford” anymore to be as stable and durable compared to stainless steel. They could break.
Now, the following example is a bit funny in the light of the expert theory that I discovered during my secondary research. You remember, the product experts and “Moto” designers took it for granted that everyone knows that a shaker with one hole is for salt. To make short: No, not everyone. Look at this:
The shakers have the same affordances as the ones we just looked at. They come with signifiers for the end-users too. But wait! The one with salt comes with two holes, the one with pepper has just one hole. How can they dare?
I hope one of the salt and pepper experts will explode while looking at them. Because these shakers might be wrong in the light of the expert theory, but very well optimised for a large group of users that rather use salt, or just salt when sprinkling spices on their meals. This makes the product a nice fit for certain user segments.
No joke! Here, we look at the probably most famous set of salt and pepper shakers in the world:
We use it on our dining table too. It was created by Bauhaus designer Wilhelm Wagenfeld in the year 1953. What makes this set of salt and pepper shakers so special?
- Wagenfeld uses glass as the material for the corpus. Glass comes with new affordances as it is transparent. This causes sometimes trouble (for example very clear glass doors cause a lot of broken noses every year and birds crash into them), but for salt and pepper shakers it’s perfect, isn’t it? You can immediately spot what’s in it. Further, the glass Wagenfeld designed is durable and won’t break easily.
- They look neat and clear as no additional signifiers are added or needed because of the transparent material.
- One shaker has smaller holes than the other (the one with the smaller holes suits better to the structure of pepper).
- It comes with a little plate that supports the usage situation (imagine asking for salt and pepper on your dining table: this little plate makes it much easier to hand both over to you partner or guest). [My little daughter loves to use the little plate as a “boat”, and to play with it while sitting on the table.]
- The shaker’s form makes you naturally grab it at the slender waist (indirect signifier).
- The different material of the lid on the top indicates (as a kind of indirect signifier again) that you can open the shaker at this point. This is a learned behaviour because we know it from opening a bottle lid too.
- They were promoted under the name “Max and Moritz”, a commonly known tale in Germany. This helped to make the sale a massive success from the 1950s till today.
Just to name a few! It’s a beautiful masterpiece that embodies the Bauhaus-motto “form follows function”.
And here you can observe “Max und Moritz” in a real usage situation:
This is my 4 years old daughter (2019-12-18), one of the pre-school test users from our example above, having her breakfast while playing some music instruments. (I bet the “Moto” designers never even imagined something close to this usage situation when they thought about their product! Haha.)
Now think about it: She was 4 years old when I recorded the video and couldn’t read at this time. Which signifiers of the designs above would work for her? Of course, the secret expert theory-knowledge about the “correct salt shaker” and the ones with written words wouldn’t help her. And there you go: It becomes even a question of accessibility if the designer didn’t consider the limitations of a relevant user group while thinking about the product.
This happens very often when people in their 20s or 30s design digital products for users of the age 60+, and don’t pay attention to issues like low contrast or small text. We will cover this topic on the next page.
Finally, let’s have a short look at this set of shakers:
This is random-design. Of course, it works well too and was probably inspired by Wagenfeld or one of the later designs. But the signifiers (S and P on the lid) are actually not necessary. And the form doesn’t make it so nice to hold the shakers.
Being honest: Personally, I like this no-name product more than the designer shakers of the “Moto” collection above. Because this sets provides better usability by avoiding the need for trial and error, even though it would not win any prizes for being the best design of the world.
Wagenfeld said, the more frequently we use a product, the better its usability needs to be. I think he got a brilliant point here!
The whole package
Wagenfeld did an outstanding job with the design of everyday objects. And have a look at this:
Even the measurements of the packaging and the way it is packed didn’t change over the time of more than 50 years.
It’s a brilliant masterpiece and should be an inspiration for every Product Lead, Designer, or CEO. From its user-centric design to the materials, up to the manufacturing process, packaging, and trade, everything was very well thought here and perfectly executed. It’s a beautiful example of product design!
We will look at all these areas and many more in detail soon. Because all of them are important for real Product Management and Product Ownership.
And with the right mindset, even an everyday object like a simple salt shaker can make it to the cover of a book containing your whole legacy:
Now that’s design! ❤️
I hope this little journey helped you:
- to get an idea about the difference between a product focus (expert view) vs. real user-centricity (thinking about usage situation, research, design)
- to understand how cool and valuable user research is for good product management/product ownership
- to inspire the right mindset in your head
- to question your data and assumptions all the time
The initial example is inspired by the following presentation:
Ready for more?
Let’s continue with some recent history, because knowing where product design comes from will help you to define your purpose in Product Ownership.