Two Lessons On How to (Not) Use the Internet as a Usability Lab for Consumer Products

Lesson #1: Listen to your customer where they are talking about your products

If you make a product or service for the consumer market—or even for the business consumer market—you’ve got an enormous usability lab at your fingertips: the Internet. That said, what follows is an example of a company that doesn’t—or at least one that didn’t take advantage of it.

In 2005 I had a friend over for dinner, and my wife asked the two of us to refill our pepper grinder. It’s one of those one-handed squeeze ball models made by the Chef’nCorporation. In short, we had a lot of trouble refilling it. We scoured the Internet and found tons of people were having the same problem. The answer was buried in the product reviews on Amazon, where someone pointed out that a nearly invisible clear plastic sticker over the product had to be removed first. Then they explained that the product had no directions on it, and we had to slide that unmarked yellow tab down to reveal the fill opening.

In response to this experience, I created a web page about that night, which people flocked to. A PR staffer from Chef’n sent me a nice note, asking me to link to the company’s FAQ page on their Web site, and also me a free Pepper Ball, promising me that they had changed the design to have a tab on the sliding panel. I eventually made this video.

Moral of the story: See what people are saying about your consumer product online. Even before Facebook, the Internet was a great place to get feedback about your product. You can look through Amazon reviews and googleyour product name to understand what people are saying about it. Chef’nput together their own FAQ on their website. Though it lacks some much-needed photos/video, it’s probably helped a lot of people refill their pepper grinder and is a high value activity for a small company like Chef’n.
This is also a case in which knowing the right forum will help a great deal. The Chef’n pepper ball questions are asked in the comments area of people’s blogs, and on reviews. You couldn’t find anything at all about it on Twitter or Facebook.

Lesson #2: Maintain an organizational history

Though traffic to my Web site remained high, I assumed that this problem had been fixed and forgot about it. Three years later, people trying to answer the question, “How do I refill a Chef’nPepper Grinder?” still find their way to that Web page of mine. Imagine my surprise when, over breakfast this weekend, my father handed me a more modern Chef’nPepper Grinder and asked, “Do you know how to refill it?” I was stunned. Could a company actually forget the lessons they had learned? Even more crazy, once I figured out where the opening was, I still found transparent tape over it. My dad is old enough that presumably his eyesight didn’t notice it, but I knew to look for it. I eventually made yet another video, realizing that a whole new crop of individuals were going to have trouble figuring out how to open their pepper grinders.

That day I went to Target and looked at the Chef’npepper grinder products on display. I found that in fact the original design of the pepper ball had gone backwards in functionality. The small tab that served as a cue to the user was now missing from the new product. It’s as if the lessons learned by the company three years ago had been forgotten. I made a new video for the next round of people having trouble with the product:

Moral of the Story: Maintain an organizational history: I’m assuming there has been some turnover at Chef’n, since nobody who had been through that entire interaction with me would allow the company to release new products with the same flaws. There should have been some form of organizational memory (a wiki, an internal blog or even an Outlook folder) that documented these interactions on the product to allow future staff to avoid repeating them.
It’s easy for PR people to maintain a correspondence file, and if the corporate attorneys frown at keeping e-mail for that long, an internal blog that you summarize important issues to periodically to serve as an organizational memory.

This entire incident reminded me that for all the complex communication Jason and I do for clients on a daily basis, it’s easy to forget that some brands don’t do even the basics of monitoring what people say about their products and incorporating their feedback. Of course this attitude is the basis for most success in advanced online communication, but it has to start somewhere.

Shabbir Imber Safdar serves as senior strategist and founder of Virilion Inc. and can be reached at Jason Alcorn of Virilion can be reached at Shabbir and Jason write about online PR and other lessons of online communications at