When business needs and user needs collide

Recently, a client of mine had a rather interesting request. They had some unsold inventory that they wanted to push and based on this business need, there was a re-prioritization of design requirements. I was asked to highlight options which did not completely align with user needs.

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The more I thought about it, the more it seemed counter to the rules I had alluded to in the article about a . In the article I used a variation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and a smart elimination technique that sounded cool on paper. Also, it would have resulted in a fairly different design and business decisions from what the client wanted. However, given the understanding of the business, I could empathise with the business need as well. So when it came to real life, do these techniques fail? It was this that led me to rethink the principles a bit.

Basic user needs as opposed to business needs

The products we design usually start off as a means towards an end and users are primarily looking for ways to complete tasks. Let’s say the user needs to dig a hole. If the choice of tools are:

  • A broken shovel
  • A toy shovel and
  • A normal shovel

It won’t take a genius to know what the user would use.

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However as more and more choices become available, users will start demanding more from the tool. First they will want a shovel that uses high quality steel and will not break. Next they will want to make sure it is not something tacky but fashionable (hey, the ladies dig these shovels). And then they will gravitate towards soft grips and the ease with which you can handle it. Finally, maybe, they would want something that is automated.

This is how the human mind works and it has been nicely abstracted by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs. What I just explained is how it manifests from a product point of view.

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As products move up this graduated ladder of user needs, they tend to become more expensive and slowly begin to loose value for a certain segment of users; who eventually drop off. Based on the user’s purchasing capacity, a user will stabilise at an option that provides best value in terms of needs met and affordability.

Products looking at growing their user base, need to find a delicate balance between the pricing, meeting user needs and managing business needs.

Imagine a movie theatre which has just introduced a high margin concession stand that they wish to promote. They already have a core audience that come in to watch the movies. While everybody buys a ticket, only a small portion of them actually visit the concession stand. So what does the movie theatre do, they allow the patrons to purchase the concessions at the box office itself.

Brilliant! Problem solved. However there is more. Here’s what the implementation looked like. As the patrons purchase the tickets, the ticket seller pushed a menu in front of them and asks if they would like to purchase some popcorn for the movie. Most patrons were only interested in the tickets and would just decline the menu. The concession stand saw only a meagre increase in sales.

One of the reasons for this would have been because patrons had not moved up the hierarchy pyramid and were just looking to experience the movie. Not the high value concessions. However the business need to push the high margin snacks was causing a mismatch in the user needs and business wants.

This is a classic case where we can put some precepts into place that can avoid these negative experiences for the user.

  1. Growth & Magnanimity: If our attitude goes beyond win-win to one where we are always customer entered, the chances of making these mistakes ago down a fair bit. A simple way this rule can be applied to the problem above is to offer concession coupons to the patron instead of having them choose from a menu. But having a magnanimous product strategy need not always be expensive. You can be generous with offering service as well. A great way to augment your magnanimity would be to offer free delivery of the snacks to your seat if you buy them at the box office. No lines. Another way would be to be generous with offering of trust by having a buy back in case they choose not to go in with the offer.
  2. Sticking to principles and values: . Once you do that everything falls into place.
  3. Patience: Wanting immediate results will cause more harm than good. It pays to be patient.
  4. Diligence: At the same time, we should not be lax and be constantly working to improve the customer experience.
  5. Focus on strategy: The final thing is not to get distracted by short term business needs and focus on the core strategy.

If we use these five foundations, we will avoid coming up with a sub optimal product and design decision to solve a pressing business need.

Originally published at on June 22, 2018.

Written by

Heading design at PhonePe | Ex Google | Ex Yahoo

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