Walmart’s costly mistake

May 17, 2011

A colleague forwarded a post about Walmart’s $1.85 billion dollar mistake that struck me for a while. That kind of led me to that cliche-ish “You don’t have to lose billions. Learn from others’ mistake” thinking. Relating this article to user experience design, it somehow reinforced a lot of things that I already agree with.

  • Observing what people do is more important than asking them what they want. What we say and what we do are not necessarily equal. Surveys and focus groups have their value, but they’re just not enough. They give a hint but they don’t really tell what the actual behavior is. That’s where  the problem is, because during the time of actual use, the user behaves according to different contexts, scenarios and needs that might not be uncovered during surveys and focus groups sessions. These sort of things are not easily articulated. Also, we can factor in survey questions mistakes (e.g. anchoring) that could produce biased answers which might not align with actual behavior. For more insight, see Jakob Nielsen’s Usability 101 post.

  • Asking the Why questions is better than just asking the What questions. Don’t get me wrong, I believe user feedback is valuable. But we should begin to ask Why questions Why do you do want that? Why did you do that? Why do you think that’s important? and then follow up the answers with another round of why’s. This is how we uncover unarticulated decision making processes. Rather than just asking What do you want, X or Y? What will you do? What is important to you? Both set of questions will definitely produce different set of answers.

  • User experience design should be balanced with business goals in mind. Sometimes we go overboard with “passion” for customer experience and satisfaction, to the point that business goals are overlooked and the bottom line is significantly affected. Had it increased sales, Walmart’s “Project Impact” would have become a glorified case study of how focusing on customer satisfaction vs. profits actually benefited the company more. We still can’t tell if Project Impact would be good in the long run, but I think it must have been because the customer satisfaction solution results did not align with the business goals that Walmart “fired the senior executives in charge of the failed strategy”, as Phil Terry put it in his article. In design thinking, we have a problem, a goal, and a set of constraints to work with, from which we can come up a solution that solves the problem and accomplishes the goal. As designers, while we can have a lot of experience goal objectives to be thrilled about, we must not set aside business goals as one of the parameters and success metrics that we have when designing (and testing) a solution.

A huge loss from a giant corporation like Walmart will certainly get our attention. The best thing we can do is to learn from their mistake and examine our methods. How about you? If you’re in Walmart’s shoes, what lessons would you have learned?

Add Comment