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How user-centered design saved Christmas

User-centered design has been a trending topic in technology since the mid-2000s. It represents a shift in thinking away from “function first” and measures the experience not just by whether it’s functionally effective, by also the extent to which the user is satisfied.

Like so many “innovations,” however, considering the user first in the design process is not a new idea. All successful designs have a primary purpose, derived from focusing on the user. This is true in any business, if you think about it – products and services alike.

In the case of packaging, the primary purpose is either to sell or protect the product. Of course the package can do both, but one must take the lead regarding design decisions. For a package to sell a product it needs broad visual appeal to its intended audience. It also, of course, must inform the potential customer as to why, how or when to use it. When the package must primarily protect the product, it will be designed to allow the contents, first and foremost, to safely pass through transport without damage or incident.

Once the primary purpose is defined it’s time to think about form and function. The economy of materials is always important, as well as simplicity and functionality. When form leads function, cost tends to go up and simplicity gives way to complexity. Sometimes a degree of this is acceptable, depending on the purpose.

Not long ago, Nelson Container was approached by a major commercial interiors design firm to package a large POP (point of purchase) display for one of the world’s largest personal technology manufacturers. These very creative displays were to be shipped to various big box retail stores around the country with no window of time for re-shipment in the event of damage.

With less than a week to design, sample, price, and produce a fool-proof packaging solution for over 1,300 hard-to-contain retail displays, we had to think – and move – fast.

I invited one of our design team members to join me in working with members of our client’s team.  Due to the confidentiality agreement with the end client, the display sample could not be moved from the warehouse, nor computer drawings be supplied.  We had a total of two hours to measure, photograph and draft manual drawings. Then we had five days to price, design, prototype, manufacture and fulfill the order.

It was a brisk challenge, calling to mind a passage from author Tim Brown’s 2009 bestseller, Change by Design: “To harvest the power of design thinking, individuals, teams, and whole organizations have to cultivate optimism. People have to believe that it is within their power (or at least the power of their team) to create new ideas, that will serve unmet needs, and that will have a positive impact.”

Optimism, as mentioned above, was a key ingredient, and our team was up to the task. Because our designer played an integral role from the beginning and treated as a key member of an integrated team, we were able to spec the job in less than eight hours and produce it with one day to spare. Best of all, there were zero units damaged in the 1,325 displays shipped in our packaging.

By keeping a focus on the user, the proper balance of form and function was achieved. Our customer – and our customer’s customer – were very satisfied with the results. And we were proud, too – of the product we produced, the speed with which we produced it and of the quality and efficiency we realized by putting the user first in our design thinking.

Tom Nelson is president of Nelson Container. He has a strong commitment to continuous learning and is active in several personal development organizations. Tom’s personal passions include bicycling and skiing, and he’s been an Alpine ski coach for 20 years. Email him anytime, he would love to hear from you.


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