Don’t Throw Your Bubblegum Out the Window

Twenty years ago my partner taught me to not throw my used bubblegum out the car window. Or anywhere else for that matter. What would happen if someone walked by and got the wad of chewed gum stuck on the sole of their shoe. That would, most likely, ruin their day or at least irritate them. I know I’d be put off. It’s a simple concept but it stuck with me. I haven’t thrown my gum away carelessly since; instead carefully placing it in it’s wrapper and into the trash every time.

I’ll apply this as an analogy for thoughtful design. Designers need to take into consideration ALL the stakeholders that will be affected by the things they design. Any time we do something that has the potential to ruin someone’s day, or inconvenience them at the very least, we are throwing gum out the car window.

We can not just worry about the user, client, engineering or manufacturing. Anyone that will come in contact with the finished design should be delighted or at the very least not inconvenienced by that which we put time and effort to present to the world.

Often, creative retail design projects, as they move from client to marketing and salesperson to sourcing, end up carrying a lot of baggage. Decisions are made ahead of time – materials, placement of interactive elements and elements that affect ergonomics (human factors). Designers can be handcuffed a bit. We as designers work to give a voice to the voiceless in the process. And if we’re not successful in convincing the others on the project to make changes, there’s a good chance gum is being thrown out of the car window.

Accessibility is the primary area this happens. The standing reach limit is about 72″ and we rarely ever run into anyone asking for something higher than that. Where we do run into a problem is making solutions accessible to people in wheelchairs and for shorter guests. A standard desktop height (30″) or countertop height (36″) is the preferred zone for interactive experiences. Any touch screen needs to have a centerline at 48″ or below, or at least have a set of controls below that height. More often than you’d think though, we get design requests that are beyond these – too high or too low – all to meet some preconceived requirement that has nothing to do anything really.  We have to match some sort of pre-existing standard e.g. an existing display or a racking set up and we aren’t allowed to “move steel”.  As designers we advocate for changes to the design requirements that benefit all stakeholders, making displays accessible to everyone.

Yes, I understand that we don’t see a lot of people in wheelchairs in some retail stores. But I would think they have enough challenges to deal with on a daily basis. Why make a retail experience be another one. And it goes beyond just accessibility. Poor way finding, confusing messaging, and poorly planned user experiences all work towards inconveniencing and annoying guests.

Prioritize design parameters, challenge preconceptions of what success looks like and focus on pleasing everyone, especially those stakeholders who don’t always get a voice at the design table. In the long run you may need to rethink the existing build environment if it’s not considerate and functioning. No sense adding more bad design to bad design.

My advice:

  • accessibility is important – know where humans can reach, see, and access interactive elements and design for them
  • keep it simple – guests are short on time when they are shopping, no one is reading paragraphs, educate concisely and quickly
  • easy to find – break it down so I can find what shoppers want, quickly
  • design the user experience – only use technology when necessary and spend the money to design the experience (should not be uncommon to spend 10% of project budget  for design of interactive user experience)
  • attention to detail – put buttons in the logical place, make sure everything works, delight guests, don’t make life complicated.

Is it the end of the world if a stranger steps in gum? No. But it sure is annoying and can really mess up someone’s day. Why would any of us want our brand experience associated with stepping in gum.

-Chris

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Chris Weigand is an industrial designer with over twenty years experience. He has worked on projects for over two-hundred brands during the course of his career. He may be contacted at 330.858.8926 and chris@chrisweiganddesign.com and would love to learn about your retail design project.

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