Intentional design (and complicated systems)

Intentional design is the most productive kind. It begins with “who’s it for?” and “what’s it for?” as foundational questions.

Along the way, complicated systems muddy design because there are so many “who”s to answer to.

Take this simple product found at a Hilton hotel, designed and sold by a division of Sysco, the giant food service company. It’s a little bigger than your thumb…

Well, if the “what’s it for” is to use in the shower, and the “who’s it for” is the hotel guest, it fails in countless ways.

It’s almost impossible to read (white type on a clear background). If you’re wearing glasses, or there’s steam, or you need glasses, then it is impossible to read.

It’s almost impossible to open as well. The diameter of the top is too small for most people to get a good grip on, particularly when used as intended–while in the shower. It turns out that the top doesn’t even screw off, there’s a tiny sharp lip that has to be popped up.

And now we get to the system problems.

The user didn’t purchase this. A well-meaning bureaucrat at Hilton worked with a well-meaning salesperson at a Sysco company to make the transaction happen. Both of them were trying to please their bosses. This might be as simple as, “buy something cheap,” but it could also have to do with favors owed, financing options or the convenience of delivery.

But wait, it gets worse.

When this container is used just one time, it’s discarded. It’s almost certainly put in an incinerator and burned for electricity or simply thrown into a landfill, where it will remain for a million years. The bottle is not only made of plastic, it’s at least five times thicker and heavier than it needs to be to do its job.

It’s not a refillable pump that is affixed to the wall and lasts for four years. It’s a disposable jar that uses almost as much energy to produce and lasts for one day.

The end result is hundreds of thousands or millions of these bottles, poisoning our world, simply because one designer asked the wrong questions.

This is the reason The Carbon Almanac needs to be part of the conversation at ordinary companies like Hilton, for typical employees like the hard-working person who is the customer of the hard-working person who designed the bottle in the first place. Because one person designed one item that ended up being reproduced a million times, frustrating hundreds of thousands of wet people in hundreds of thousands of showers and then producing countless pounds of toxic carbon released into the air.

Nobody wins when this happens. It wastes time and money and goodwill. All because the system isn’t clear about who it’s for and what it’s for.

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