The Uses of Crying Over Spilled Milk

The New York Times reports that Costco and Wal-Mart are ready to start carrying a newly redesigned gallon of milk. They seem pretty awesome, except not. Here, let’s quote a bit:

The jugs are cheaper to ship and better for the environment, the milk is fresher when it arrives in stores, and it costs less.…

But if the milk jug is any indication, some of the changes will take getting used to on the part of consumers. Many spill milk when first using the new jugs.

“When we brought in the new milk, we were asking for feedback,” said Heather Mayo, vice president for merchandising at Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart. “And they’re saying, ‘Why’s it in a square jug? Why’s it different? I want the same milk. What happened to my old milk?’ ”

I suspect that different people will have different opinions about what the problem is here. Some—like the those behind these milk jugs—are saying that people are just too stubborn and need to learn to change with the times. Others—like those who dislike spilling milk, cleaning milk, or having to pour milk for children who can’t lift the redesigned jug—might contend that the problem here is that you ask for feedback before you design the damn jug.

I think it’s great that designers have begun taking things like environmentalism into consideration. But I also think that, at its heart, all product design is fundamentally about the creation of interfaces (according to people who are way smarter than I am). Making a milk jug which saves costs and materials is great—but if it doesn’t function as something people can recognize and use, well, then it’s a failure.

Mind you, this doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Maybe you remember the new prescription bottle designed by a grad student at the School of Visual Arts. The thing is brilliant: more usable and more environmentally friendly. (Shame on the FDA for ignoring the thing, and kudos to Target for realizing what a step forward it is.)

Whereas the starting point for the redesign of this milk bottle was likely an economic concern, the pill bottle started with a human concern. Namely, the designer’s grandmother took the wrong medication because all prescription bottles tend to look the same, and usually highlight pharmacy branding and other inessential material over more crucial info (like, say, the actual name of the drug, or who the drug is for). The designer went through a number of different versions to see what would work for elderly people and users with sight issues, and ended up with something simple and more efficient.

Will it be worth teaching people the special trick to pour the new milk bottle? Maybe , in the long run, it will. But what would be smarter would be to get a group of people together to represent the interests of the average milk drinker (and pourer) during the design process to make sure that an important group of stake holders is represented. When people start crying over spilled milk, a good designer doesn’t admonish them for it; we go back to the drawing board.

I was expecting this post to be by Tony. I wish the RSS feed said the author, I get so confused. :-P

Your comment pertains to neither design nor milk!

Anyway, my RSS reader (NetNewsWire) lists the author at the bottom of each post. That might be reconfigurable, though.

The RSS feed does provide the author, it’s just a matter of whether or not your reader displays it.