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What terrible cookies can teach us about good design

No matter what product or service you’ve been tasked with designing, you are designing it for an end-user. Whether it’s a money saving app or a new cookie, someone is going to use it or someone is going to eat it and this relationship takes priority in the design. This is the mantra of Human Centered Design and in my new book, The Future of Extraordinary Design, I re-examine the use of HCD and the reason I do so is this. 

These days, so many poorly designed products reach the market that I’ve started to wonder what’s going on. And I’m not just talking about exploding phones, but everyday products and apps. Either, the designers aren’t designing them with the user’s best interests in mind or they’re not designing them for the user at all. I doubt it is the latter. Rather, mistakes are being made. But as a designer, it’s my responsibility to work out how and why these mistakes are happening. 

While we all know some famous tech flops, and they will remain nameless here, not all these issues show up in tech. And the ones which aren’t tech can also tell us a lot about where designers are going wrong. Let me give you an example.

The Watermelon Oreo

Perhaps you missed this – I hope you did – but many consumers didn’t and were left scratching their heads like me. In 2013, Oreo brought out a limited edition watermelon flavored Oreo and it tasted disgusting, but you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. You could be forgiven for thinking it was a free advertising idea. Perhaps they hoped news of such a flavor would go viral. It was shared on social media and blogged about, but I’m still not convinced it was a successful campaign. Basically, Oreos are meant to be delicious and the flavor, even the idea of the flavor of creamy, chocolatey watermelon creates a feeling of disgust. It meant people thought of the Oreo brand and thought, Yuk!

“We chose Watermelon because it is a fun, summer flavor…” Oreo spokesperson Kimberly Fontes told TIME. But is that why you buy a cookie because it’s fun? Probably not, but at the same time, Starbucks was starting to experiment with unusual multi-colored offerings – which was also seen as a bit gimmicky, but which went on to become a staple, money maker. So it’s hard to judge. Whatever the decision behind the watermelon Oreo, it wasn’t user-specific. They were either trying to stand out, trying to create a buzz or looking to shock. They weren’t trying to design a great product for their customers. And I find this rather sad. 

In the customer’s shoes

I’m a firm believer in designing for the customer or user, but aren’t we all? But as I discuss in my book, you can’t put the user in a vacuum to cut them off from other elements of society such as employees, the environment. You have to design holistically. Designing a watermelon flavored cookie sounds like blinkered thinking. It might be HCD but it’s not working. 

Aside from the amount of waste they likely produced making and not selling this cookie, did no one actually sit down and try to eat one? I’m sure they did, but here’s the problem – the designers tried the cookies, not the users. They took a bite thinking like a designer, not a consumer.

What’s the difference between a designer and a user?

This question is one we should all ask ourselves every working day. Firstly, the difference is a designer is being paid to like the product – it’s in their best interest to like the product they design. But the customer has to pay to like the product. Secondly, because of this different status with the product, a different relationship is created and a different way of interacting with the product too. I’m still talking about cookies, to keep it simple, but this goes for every product. A money saving app is assessed by a designer on a completely different set of criteria to the user. The designer wants attractiveness, usability, and function – the user wants it to support save them money! But every example is different. 

As designers, we need to get our heads around this. Back to the cookies! Imagine the development lab (or whatever they have) for Oreo cookies. There on the shelves are boxes and boxes of chocolate creme Oreo thins, salted caramel Oreos, birthday cake Oreos, and Mint-Chocs. These are all solid, well-developed flavors and loved by millions. But you’re a designer and you want to design! So the idea of swapping mint creme for orange creme is not really much of a challenge. You want to do something completely different. So why not watermelon? 

It kind of makes sense. People eat fewer cookies in the summer – that’s why Oreo do a special limited edition in the summer to try to move product. And watermelon is very 4th of July, it’s refreshing and as the spokesperson says – it’s fun. So you make a prototype or two and start nibbling. First the food techs, then the designers and specialist tasters, then the management, everyone has a little bite and agrees, these taste completely different from the cookie and creme or anything else… and they’re not disgusting. Great!

But a cookie and any kind of product need to be so much more than just passable. Like cookies, apps and services are (orshould be) designed to be consumed in bulk. If a user only ever uses your app once and then decides they’ve had enough then you’ve got the same problem as when a consumer decides to only eat one cookie. To sell cookies you need to sell tons. This means to test a cookie’s edibility you need to eat tons too.

I believe this was the basic problem here, why people only ever bought one packet and when they thought of Oreos after that, they felt slightly sick. No one eats one cookie. We love to be tempted to eat another.

Blog post written by Nik Parekh

Nik Parekh

Nik is a design and strategy professional dedicated to championing community-driven design over human-centered design. He advocates taking the fifty-thousand-foot view approach, stepping back and looking at the whole picture to deliver a holistic and sustainable solution.

In the last decade, he’s worked with many clients large and small across a range of industries, from banking to food platforms, and with big names such as Samsung, Delta, and Chase. An engaged public speaker and mentor, Nik has been writing articles on the subject of service design for several years.

Mobile UX London Conference: 21 November 2019

On 21 November, we will be holding our annual conference, exploring the evolution of and future of UX Design.

This year’s conference themes include:

Mobile UX London Conference

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