The customer is always right, right?


Most of us will be familiar with this phrase:

The customer is always right.

So, what does it really mean? More importantly for those in design and UX can we learn something from it? After all, most people who have spent a bit of time dabbling in this field have probably heard the term CX – Customer eXperience – used before.

Naive interpretation

If we take the phrase at face value then we simply assume that the customer is correct no matter what. In cases where the customers are reasonable then this interpretation works pretty well. If the fries you served were too salty then they don’t have anything to gain other than an edible packet of fries. When running a focus group in the era of horses and carts then people would have asked for faster horses. Anyone that knows about the Henry Ford story would know that brought us motor vehicles instead. So, maybe the naive interpretation isn’t that great.

Beneath the surface interpretation

If we dig a little deeper beneath the surface then we get to think a little more about why we’re getting this feedback from people. An angry customer shouting at you for a refund doesn’t necessarily believe they deserve a refund or that you even sell that particular item (as I’ve heard rumours about Walmart/Target’s return policy to accept anything, I forget which). What they might really need is financial support in a difficult time, or emotional support as they’ve put themselves in a situation they know they can “win”.

Taking the Henry Ford story of people asking for a faster horse, they don’t really want that. What they want in its purest essence is a way to go faster. Asking for more towels regularly at your hotel might mean your towels are crap, not that they need all these towels normally. This seems entirely logical and some may stop here, but when you check the room after they check out your bath tub or shower leaks. Hmmm, maybe it wasn’t the towels themselves after all.

Design interpretation

I touched upon the design interpretation above with the Henry Ford story, but let’s explore a little deeper. In a design context you will be living and breathing users. Stepping into their shoes, asking them all sorts of questions, observing them and trying to make the best case possible to enable them to do the tasks they desire. At every single point in your UX career you can’t, not even for a second, take things at face value. To be good at design thinking means to challenge what we already know and to always be skeptical.

The boom box era

I’ll leave you with a relatively common story about observing what people do, not what they say. I forget where I read the story so if you know, please get in touch and let me know!

Back in the 70’s and 80’s when they first came out they were revolutionary at the time, but they always struggled with one market – the youngsters, the teenagers. They did focus group after focus group and each and every time the kids said they wanted different colours, bright and bold like the rainbow. Each time they would release a new line and they would fail catastrophically in sales. So one focus group decided to do things different.

They ran the focus group, exactly like last time and again they had the same answers. “Colourful ones, like the rainbow!”. Yeah, we’ve been here before. What they did at the end of the focus group though was offer a free boom box. They had all the colours they had before as upcoming models yet to be released, and to add in to the mix they added a few extra colours to test. Among the colours was black to see what would happen. Guess what? The only colour they took was black, and the rest is history.


In this post we discussed the meaning of “the customer is always right”. You can take it at face value which is useless except for the most trivial of things. You can dig a bit deeper and evaluate feedback without context, but you may start treating the symptom instead of the problem. Dig down to the deepest level and with a design mind, you take into consideration the whole context and challenge what you know until it’s simple and pure to see.

Until next time,

– Chuck

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