Defeating Product Blindness


Customer: “Wait, I thought this place closes at 11pm?”

Barista: “No, we close at 6”

C: “But Yelp says 11pm!”

B: “Yeah…that’s weird. Sorry.”

This is a real interaction I overheard at the local coffee shop, but not the first time I’ve seen this interaction unfold.

As a coffee & tea lover, it’s hard for me to find shops that open late in Downtown LA. For some reason most places close at 7pm, and it sucks not having late night study options (1st world problem). So when I find a coffee shop that claims to close at a certain time, and they close earlier, what you do call that?


Friction occurs when there’s a mismatch in experience. It occurs when one party (a business) promises one thing, but the actual experience is completely different.

And the solution seems stupidly simple. The coffeeshop owner can simply edit their Yelp page. But all too often, we get caught up in the business of making stuff that we’re blind to how our customers actually use our product. 

More specifically, it’s easy to be ignorant of the entire ecosystem of service that our customers are subjected to go through.

Case 1

I tried calling the number of a website I’m designing. “Call us now,” is one of the biggest call-to-actions on the pages.

So one day, I called the number. It rang and rang…and rang. Then I left a message, leaving my number for customer service to call me back.

I never heard back. Some of my coworkers who tried the experiment never got a response either.

Case 2

Chase Bank kept locking me out of my account. When I tried logging in, it presented me with a gnarly “We’ve de-activated your account,” prompting me to call a customer rep.

Customer service would re-activate my account, but the issue would resurface every time I tried logging in.  After imploring with service reps how to prevent this problem, finally one proactive rep researched the issue, got a back-office technical support guy on the phone, and finally fixed the annoying problem once and for all.

So why did it take over 6 calls for me to fix this issue? Product Blindness happens to the best of us, but here are my thoughts on how we can get to know our own products – and the pains of our customers – much better.

Here are 3 best practices that I think can help kill product blindness:

1. Consider Different Touchpoints

As designers, it’s easy to be consumed by pixels. I often get caught up thinking of the world in terms of user interfaces, websites and mobile views.

But customers often experience a wide range with touchpoints – not just the website – when interacting with businesses. Take Starbucks for example:

A customer may walk into a Starbucks location (spatial touchpoint) and order coffee. While ordering, the cashier (personal touchpoint) asks if they’re interested in buying a Starbucks gift card since it’s Christmas. The customer says yes, charges $20 to the gift card (physical touchpoint).

Later on, the customer can log on to the Starbucks website (digital touchpoint) and check the balance on her Starbucks gift card.

Throughout that customer experience, a user has experienced Starbucks from its store, to its physical goods, to its web presence. If I were a designer building the gift card portal of the Starbucks website, it would behoove me to make designs in mind of all the touchpoints that a customer might come across.

Some useful exercises that help to this end:

  • Journey maps (to visually highlight the touchpoints in an experience)
  • User Stories (to understand a user’s mental model)
  • User Flow Diagram (to understand the steps and microinteractions users take)

Design artifacts can help us see a high level view to keep in mind of these different touchpoints. But that can only do so much, which brings us to the next part…

2. Get out of the building

Getting out of the building is a phrase that just means step outside of the building and talk to actual customers.

At a Lean UX training event, our teams got uncomfortable by literally getting out of the building to find real customers. This was an illuminating experience for me because actual user behavior was often totally different from our expectations.

Some older folks understood and knew what the hamburger icon meant. Others told me they don’t use the internet, but their kids search Google for them.

Other times we got kicked out of malls and gyms for trying to survey strangers. Lol.

you are not your customer

Talking to customers = easiest way to realize you are not your customers. This helps keep the feedback loop tight so that you can build-measure-learn even faster.

If it’s hard for you to talk to actual customers for confidentiality reasons, you can pretend to be a customer yourself:

  • Call your own company
  • Try ordering your own product online
  • Sign up for your own email newsletter

No one on my design team would’ve guessed that the pages that we’re designing – with “Call Us Now!” – often lead to dead ends for the customer.

3. A Culture of Ownership

Even after getting a direct customer complaint, the response from the barista in the coffee shop example was “Meh, that sucks.” I checked the Yelp page and the times are still wrong.

That example, along with a string of canned responses from Chase representatives, was indicative of a culture that says…

“Sorry, that’s not my job.”

Customers can tell when employees of a company to take responsibility of their product. For this to happen, it’s also vital that management empowers their employees to take ownership. 

Here’s a great example from a Norwegian insurance company:

130 Gjensidige managers, including the CEO, gathered their own insight by calling 1000 customers. They loved it, because they realized they had not spoken to customers in years and it was often these interactions that had sparked their interest in the business in the first place.

Gjensidige CEO and execs calling their own customers

What next? 

Look, I’m the biggest offense of product blindness. I run a UX blog and many parts of the experience here are broken (have you seen my sexy misaligned sign-up field below?) I get caught making wireframes and deliverables at work, just to realize I haven’t talked to an actual customer in ages.

It happens to the best of us, but it’s important to challenge ourselves to know who our users are, and if our product still gives them any value.