Get inside your customer’s head: It’s just like packing a lunch!

For some reason, relating the work I do to the customer’s experience of it comes naturally to me. I think it’s because I’m empathetic, which in high school made me pathetic but now, as an adult, it’s a job skill! I just instinctively look at a particular deliverable (be it a site, article or tool) and think, “How is the target end user going to experience this?”

I recognize that it’s not easy for everyone to put themselves into their customer’s place, so I developed a little exercise that I think might help. I call it the Lunchbox Method.

Have you ever made a lunch for a child or significant other? There are a number of ways to approach this seemingly simple task.

To meet the requirements of providing a lunch without much thought or effort, you could simply provide money or a debit card to buy whatever he or she wants. This is akin to being the CEO of a company: You decide to fund this “lunch thing” and don’t put any real thought or effort into it except to ensure the money’s there when it’s needed.

Moving beyond simply being a funder, you could assemble a perfunctory meal by grabbing some food from the pantry and/or refrigerator and tossing it in a bag. You’ve met the requirements of a lunch, but did you check to see whether the foods go well together? Are they part of a balanced diet, or will your loved one have a post-lunch sugar tirade followed by a late afternoon crash? Is there enough food to satisfy the recipient’s hunger?

At this level, you’re working as the project manager – trying to write a spec or plan for a healthy, filling lunch. To consider the customer experience, you must go even deeper. So you put together a good lunch – and there’s plenty of it – but does your loved one even like the foods you’re including? Have any of these selections previously met with disapproval at dinner time or returned home in lunch bags past only barely touched? Here you start considering customer data. This is akin to customer experience in that you are starting to focus on other people’s likes and dislikes (and not your own individual preferences and peeves). But you can still go deeper.

Now let’s look at how the food will be consumed. This is the heart of customer experience, because you are actually opening the bag in your mind and imagining how it will be consumed at lunch time. Does the food require a fork or a spoon to consume? Is it messy? If so, add any necessary cutlery and perhaps an extra napkin or two. Are there hot and cold foods included, such as a thermos of soup and a frosty beverage? If so, maybe you need two bags or a lunchbag with separate hot and cold compartments.

Let’s take it a step further. You want to delight your customer, right? (Especially since, in this exercise, it’s someone you personally know and love!) How about a special treat like a favorite homemade snack or even some leftover Easter or Halloween candy and a small personal note. When your family member opens her lunch bag, you want her face to light up – especially if she’s been very good and you’re overdue to reward her for some great behavior or a thoughtful gesture.

Finally, after the day is done, look at the remains to see how much of each food came back (objective data) and ask your customer what they thought (subjective data). Customer focus is not a one-time reality check you conduct at the end of a project, it should be an iterative process that you apply every step of the way. You need to validate your assumptions and course correct when you find you’ve diverged from a particular customer base’s needs.

Keep in mind that your customers’ tastes may change over time, as anyone with a 6-year-old can attest. The same is especially true on the Internet, where likes and dislikes evolve with every passing meme. And naturally, every project is different so consider differences in customer segments, though at the most basic level just thinking about how someone other than you approaches a particular thing is a step in the right direction.

Food for thought, I hope.


  1. marianne says:

    This is a great analogy and one that I will keep in mind. It is so easy to give the customer what is easy (in the pantry) and call it a day. Thanks for the reminder on the upside of taking some extra effort.

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