Business needs, customer needs, and a Sam’s Club milk jug

Sam's Club milk jug (April 2023)

The curse of a designer. I can't go anywhere without seeing Norman's The Design of Everyday Things lessons in, you know, everyday things.

And so when my wife brought home this Sam's Club milk jug the other day, it wasn't long before I pegged it as a perfect personification of the tussle between customer needs, business needs, and the product experiences we build.

Every business in the world must pit customer needs against business needs if they have any hope of staying in business. In the best scenarios, business needs are invisible to the customer; they're baked into the experience. Subconsciously, the customer perceives only an exceptional customer experience as if to say, "You did all this just for me!"

For Sam's Club, the customer need is milk consumption. However, Sam's Club or Costco customers aren't seeking the best milk on earth. They're seeking the most affordable milk in bulk.

Enter business needs.

Give the jug a flat top and reinforce the side panels (note the veins running down the side) and voilà, each jug is now stackable and transportable at lower costs than a traditional milk jug.

If some of your business needs are bleeding into the consumer experience more than you'd prefer:

1. Don't beat yourself up. EVERY business wrestles with this. Some do it better than others. There are countless reasons why business needs supersede user needs, many of which are beyond your control and mired in corporate bloat.

2. But don't be satisfied either. Regardless of your level, influence, or time with the company you absolutely can influence how much a business de-emphasizes its needs on behalf of the customer. You're a junior designer? Well guess what, you can structure your mockups in such a way that elevates customer needs while still addressing business needs. You're a director of product management? Your responsibility and influence is magnitudes greater. Everyone can start somewhere.

3. Tell a compelling story. Often the most powerful ways to enact change is through storytelling. Sometimes this is done through customer feedback (see Chapstick example linked in the comments). Other times it's done by employees — yes you! — dogfooding and demonstrating how business needs have superseded customer needs. And so forth.

Solving customer needs in the context of profitability will never go out of style. Solving customer needs as if it's the only thing in the world that matters and doing it profitably? That's next level, folks.

Note: I said perfect personification, not beautiful or usable product experience. Costco (and possibly other international retailers) use a similar jug, and some customers cite difficulty pouring this type of jug vs. traditional milk jugs.