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  • Writer's pictureMark Robinson

Design For Edge Cases

Have you ever experienced a feeling of dread when you purchase a product and later discover that it is not well thought through? You turn it on and realize that the product designer did not consider an essential use case.

Last week, my home’s lighting control system failed. It was under warranty which was great. The manufacture stood by the product and offered me a free replacement. What’s not so great is that the system required re-programming which is expensive and time-consuming. This was not covered by the warranty, so I had to hire someone to come over to my house and reprogram it. Since the system is connected to the internet, the manufacturer could have stored my program in the cloud, but they didn’t consider this use case and therefore, I had to spend more money to use the lighting system.

Good product design does not end with designing the product. That is because all products have to play in an ecosystem. The best products are built with this understanding and designed for an ecosystem. The product has to play well with others.

There are three great rules to consider when you are designing a product.

First, consider customer service can influence the product. Many great product managers forget this rule. They design a terrific product with little or no consideration for how to manage it in the field.

Recently, I took my family to Disney World. At one point in the sales process, Disney suggested we purchase a meal plan. It was marketed as a great way to manage the costs of dining in the Magic Kingdom. We purchased the plan and took our trip.

It was really a wonderful trip for us all. I was constantly surprised at how wellthought through the entire experience was. Everything except for the meal plan. The problem with the meal plan is that there was no clear way to know how to purchase your meals. The plan includes three different types of credit: quick-service meals, snacks and table-service meals. The problem was that restaurants did not indicate what type of meal they offered. For example, you might enter the restaurant and find that you had to order at a counter, but they served you at a table. Is this a quick-service or a table-service meal? It changed from restaurant to restaurant.

This forced us to ask a Disney representative each time we went to eat. As table-service meals were more expensive then the other types, we often felt trapped into paying more for a meal then we wanted.

This was an edge case that was lost in the planning phases of the Disney Dining Plan.  The point is, when you are designing a product, consider how straightforward it is for the user and to what extent they might need help to navigate your product.

Second, consider what will happen if the customer does not want to use your product as intended. I will continue to beat on the Disney Dining Plan. When I took the family to Disney World, there were five of us. As it turned out, we all had different eating habits. I often wanted a salad for a meal, but the plan only allowed for entrees. At one restaurant, I asked if I could have a salad (considered an appetizer) instead of a full meal, and was told that it would not be covered under the meal plan. I had to purchase a more expensive meal to get only the salad that I wanted. Not only was this more expensive, but it meant that to eat lighter meals, many people had to order more food then they wanted- a waste of money and food.

To improve this experience, Disney should allow people to substitute meals for lesser items at some discounted rate. Perhaps an entree is worth 2 appetizers. Perhaps a dessert is worth an appetizer. By not establishing this exchange rate, the servers were left to resolve it (often to the annoyance of the customer).

Over the course of our stay, we witnessed several arguments between customers and servers regarding the meal plan.

A good product manager understands that customers are not always predictable and they will often use a product in unexpected ways. I doubt that the folks at Apple fully understood all the ways people would use their devices – which I am sure was a pleasant surprise to them.

Finally, understand that the best products allow people to self manage. Towards the end of our trip to the Wonderful World of Disney, I wanted to make sure that we used up our entire meal plan. Disney does NOT give refunds. The problem was that I had no mechanism to check this without asking servers to look up our account and tell me.

Disney has a web application called MyDisneyExperience. It allows you to set up reservations and make plans throughout the park. Disney has done a great job at training their customers to use this application to navigate all of the services at the park,  except for the meal plan. An obvious way to make the meal plan easier would have been to integrate it into the MyDisneyExperience application. It would allow customers to manage their meal plan accounts and eliminate the need to question meal servers about their plan.

Edge cases like these are important. They help you ensure that your customers are successful with your products, and have an experience that keeps them coming back. 

I am quite certain that I will take my family back to Disney World some day. It was an enjoyable experience for all of us and one that I would wish to repeat. I am also quite certain that I would not purchase the meal plan again.

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