Designing systems and processes that work

Custom Search

Many managers are unaware of the design faults in their systems and processes. If you want to avoid major problems, then this free article by Derek Stockley may well save your customers immense frustration and dramatically improve your bottom line.

When designing a system, make sure it is right from the beginning

I had an interesting afternoon last week. I had three errands to complete. Simple, basic transactions. Two concerned my bank and one a major retail store.

I have commented on my bank before, see the negative comment in Achieving exceptional customer service. To cut a long story short, the bank decided to stop a special arrangement I had made with a previous bank manager. It allowed me to undertake a certain transaction expeditiously. The arrangement was different to normal policy, and because the bank lacked a system to record such arrangements, the staff member refused to honour my arrangement.

I decided to pursue the matter with the branch manager. This proved to more difficult than I anticipated. Many valuable customer service lessons have occurred. I will write an article when the matter is resolved. (See How to handle customer complaints - highlights how good practices can minimise the unhappiness caused by bad customer service practices and processes.)

I also visited a different branch of the same bank on the same day. This transaction was a deposit of cash. The bank has recently gone paperless, so I handed over the ATM card and said: "I would like to deposit $XXX in the cheque account please." The card was linked to both a savings and a cheque account.

I was very surprised when the staff member said: "Which account number is that?". The system did not tell her the account type. The system expected you to think in numbers, not account types. How silly is that? (Later in the week I heard of someone actually making a mistake and putting the funds into the wrong account).

We finally worked it out and I walked out of the bank with the transaction completed. There I was confronted by an elderly, frustrated gentleman complaining about the location of the ATMs (Automatic Teller Machines). The branch had recently moved to a main road where there was no parking next to the branch entry (and the ATMs). How stupid is that? Every suburban branch has ATMs. What do many people do? They drive up to the ATM, jump out of the car, get their money, jump back into the car and drive away. Simple. Two or three minutes at the most.

The people who chose this location were not thinking. Like the account transaction, they did not ask: how do people do their banking business with us?

By this stage, you may be wondering why I still use the same bank. So am I. It might be because they regularly provide such rich material for these newsletter articles!

I then walked across to the major store. It sells a wide variety of merchandise (clothing, sports goods, household, electrical, etc.).

At the checkout, the operator was very efficiently scanning and packing my purchases. It seemed quicker than normal. It was a new and different checkout layout, in a corner style arrangement.

I commented that the new arrangement appeared to be very good. The operator said it was, but then immediately pointed to a major design flaw. The new scanner was an overhead scanner, with the head about one foot (30 cm) above the counter. This was fine for small items (like those in a supermarket), but it made it difficult for the large bulky items carried by this store.

It took me 15 seconds to identify a major design flaw. It should have been picked up at the design stage.

What do designers and managers need to do?

New systems and processes should be tested from the very beginning. When the concept is developed, it should be user tested.

In the bank example, brainstorm all the different ways customers do business. Think about what they say and how they do it. Think about it from their viewpoint. Do they think in account types or account numbers? Do they drive or walk to the branch? What about disability considerations?

In the store example, prototype it. It would take about 30 minutes to set up cardboard boxes to look like the new counter. Have staff of various sizes 'go through the motions'. Have a good range of the store’s merchandise 'to process'. Have someone standing as a 'customer' to get their perspective.

Keep testing as you develop the process. In the counter example, physically build a prototype. 'Go through the motions' again and again.

Here in Victoria, the government spent millions of dollars on a public transport automatic ticketing system that was a usability disaster. The ticketing system is so bad, that at a usability conference I attended, speaker after speaker had chosen it as an example to highlight to the audience. The cardboard box test with a variety of users would have located some of the major flaws. Proper user testing with a full-scale prototype of the ticket machine would have identified the other flaws.

So what should a designer or manager do?

  • Recognise that good design is not easy to achieve.

  • Base your design on thorough research. Talk to customers and staff. Do basic research as a minimum. For big projects, do extensive research.

  • Recognise that 'outsiders' have to be brought into the design process to provide an external viewpoint. These people are not intimately involved in the design development. They are not 'blinkered'. They see it with 'fresh eyes'.

  • Test early and often. Two hours testing in the early stages can save hundreds (thousands) of hours later.

  • Be persistent. Keep checking. Keep evaluating.

In the examples above, it took me about 15 seconds to identify major system faults. Fifteen seconds.

And how did I do it?

I simply asked a question. I asked for some feedback.

Over the years, I have learnt many things by asking questions at the store counter. Many of these newsletter articles are prompted by such conversations. When I ask, many staff respond positively because I have taken an interest. I often have the feeling that they do not have such discussions with their own managers.


Good system design requires vigilance. However, simple testing can achieve major improvements. Just do it.

Related articles

In addition to the link described above:

Achieving excellent service design - the importance of excellent service design, including product design examples and how design relates to exceptional customer service.

The importance of auditing and monitoring your business systems - emphasises the importance of constantly monitoring and auditing every important business system.

To review the newsletter, see: Listing of recent newsletter articles. All articles relate to a performance theme, but individual newsletters cover a specific topic. Themes include customer service, leadership, management, website marketing and time management.

All articles are original. You can publish this article, provided that you meet certain requirements, see: High Performance Newsletter Publication page.

Derek Stockley conducts a variety of public training courses in Australia.

These Ads appear as part of our monitoring of internet activity.