Put yourself in the baggage handler’s shoes

March 23, 2009


The most important thing in design and business in general is to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. Unless your target base is yourself, you will not see the product/service you have created in the same way as them. Just as importantly, even if you do understand your customer, or user, they will experience your creation in a different way. For example, they will probably have to discover it (you know everything there is to know), buy it (all you need to do is ask) and use it without anyone telling them what to do (you made it, you know how it works). Finally, how can you know that the service you have designed is delivered right?

The answer is this: dogfooding. Use your product! It’s that simple – although it sometimes means going out of your way (and it can be particularly difficult if you aren’t the target audience). And it’s not just about putting yourself in the position of the ultimate customer – you also have to understand the people making and delivering your idea.  The concept is well known from programming, but applies absolutely everywhere. Take Bobby McFerrin, an amazingly talented singer. He has found a way to manipulate his voice so that when he performs he doesn’t need any accompaniement to create multi-layered compositions. For example:

How does he do it? By being brutally honest with himself:

“It took me at least 2 years, 3 years, of going into a room by myself and turning on a tape recorder and singing before I felt comfortable singing in front of other people. I was afraid to sing around anyone. I was intimidated by the sound of my own voice. I would wait until the house was empty and then I would sing. So it took time. It took six years before I did my first solo concert. So it took about six years of singing constantly, doing a lot of practicing. For the first two years I didn’t listen to another singer. Because I wanted to find what my voice sounded like. Knowing myself, I’m very impressionable. It would have been very easy for me to shop around for a singer whose technique I liked, and use that as my base and try and do what they did, but I made the conscious decision not to do that. I just wanted to make sure that I had a strong base of my own, because I could easily flounder by going out and just copping somebody else’s licks. I used to do that as a piano player and I knew that wasn’t going to get me anywhere.” (link)

You can’t improve until you know what you’re doing.

A bit of homework

So take this concept of dogfooding and think about these two stories about the management of two well known companies. Here’s your homework: which of these two companies has bucked the trend of a declining industry, becoming a globally recognised innovator, and which one is the poster child for its tragically collapsing, bailout-needing sector?

AirAsia’s and its CEO, Tony Fernandes – (link)

Mr Fernandes says that he came to the industry with no preconceptions, but found it rigidly compartmentalised and dysfunctional. He wanted AirAsia to reflect his own unstuffy, open and cheerful personality. He is rarely seen without his baseball cap, open-neck shirt and jeans, and he is proud that the firm’s lack of hierarchy (very unusual in Asia) means anyone can rise to do anyone else’s job. AirAsia employs pilots who started out as baggage handlers and stewards; for his part, Mr Fernandes also practises what he preaches. Every month he spends a day as a baggage-handler; every two months, a day as cabin crew; every three months, a day as a check-in clerk. He has even established a “culture department” to “pass the message and hold parties”.

General Motors and its top management-(link)

Not only are managers and executives insulated from learning what goes in their company because they generally talk rather than listen, they are also insulated from experiencing what it is like to buy and own a car.   GM has a perk for managers down to fairly low levels where all are given a GM car to drive – they rotate from one car to another.  I am not sure of the exact details, but answers to the questions I’ve asked over the years  suggest it goes something like this: the lowest level managers have to buy their own cars, the ones at somewhat higher levels get a new car to drive every six months or so but have to do some servicing, the managers who are somewhat higher-up get somewhat fancier cars and are freed from any servicing (gas is even put in the cars of some executives so they don’t have to go to the service station), and the highest level executives get a car and a driver.

In other words, this system effectively insulates people in management – especially those in senior management — from experiencing what it is like to shop for, bargain for, purchase, service, and sell a car. They only get the driving experience. Well, except for the most senior executives, who don’t even get that experience — they watch a person in the front seat drive a big car.  Now, it is true, that the most senior executives do own GM cars for personal use, but it is my understanding that when a car is delivered to a senior executive, special attention is devoted to the car – even during the production process –to make sure the top brass aren’t exposed to a car with any flaws. Wouldn’t that be nice?

So there you have it, a system that seems designed to isolate executives from reality.  They talk instead of listen and are protected from the experience of owning car.   I might be exaggerating some, but not much.

It’s not too hard to guess…


One Response to “Put yourself in the baggage handler’s shoes”

  1. […] makes it extra important to put yourself in the shoes of your users (no pun intended) to work out what they need and iterate until you can provide […]

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