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Is Target's Pill Bottle Good User-centered Design?

Much has been said about ClearRX, the prescription-packaging designed by Deborah Adler and being sold at Target across America. It has received awards and write ups in publications as varied as BusinessWeek, core77, I.D. Magazine, and the New York Times. The MOMA even included ClearRX in an exhibit this past October as Michael Beirut hailed it as "The Great Non-Amber-Colored Hope": graphic design's equivalent to the iPod. Adler's design is clearly evocative and seems to address many of the needs consumers of prescription medication seem to have, but... is this really good user-centered design?

This query first occured this past summer as I was working in Silicon Valley. I went to Target with a fellow colleague to pick up a few items. ClearRX had just recently been released and we were both excited to see it in person. Although neither of us needed a prescription filled, we approached the pharmacist counter and asked to see the new design. The pharmacist on duty was helpful and immediately produced an empty bottle for us to examine. As we stood there, discussing our awe and amazement over what we thought was a fabulous piece of work, it became more and more apparent that the pharmacist had something to say.

When my colleague asked what was on her mind, she replied with a somewhat surprised, "Do you really want to know what I think?" We assured her we did and were met with an outpouring of frustration related to the new design. While she immediately agreed it was better for consumers, she complained that the bottle was designed in a way that made her job significantly harder, even claiming it took her twice the time to fulfill prescriptions. More specficially, she complained about the inset area in which the label needed to be applied. If not applied just right, it was impossible to insert the info card. That led her to then complain about the card itself. She noted that it took significant time to make as they needed to be folded "just right" and could be easily ruined. By her reaction, it seemed clear that no one had ever asked her what she thought about this tool which she used more than any other.

We left in a bit of a daze. How could this triumph of user-centered design be so poorly thought of by its primarly user?!? Over the next several months, I visited three other Targets in the Bay Area of California and Chicagoland. Each time I head immediately for the pharmacist to see if I could get them talking about ClearRX. Two of the three had almost nothing to say, probably as a result of me being a bit too direct in my questiong. The third opened up a bit and expressed similar sentiments to the complaints of the original pharmacist I talked to, also citing the much longer length it took to fulfill prescriptions.

The Meaning of "User-centered"
So, getting back to the original question, is ClearRX a good example of user-centered design? I would argue no as its primary user, pharmacists, are less efficient and slower as a result. Let me be clear that I am not decrying Adler or Target in saying this. Adler is a fabulous designer and Target is a great company at which I often shop (and would consider working with if any hiring managers are reading this). Obviously this new design is and should be hailed as a clear win for consumers. But, while it is the pinnacle of consumer-centered design, it should not be hailed as user-centered.

This is in an important distinction many so-called "user-centered" designers fail to realize with issues as a result. Being user-centered means focusing on every type of individual who might come in contact with some product or service being designed, not just the consumer buying it. It means viewing products being worked on in the context of manufacturing, shipping, use by sales and retail employees and, finally and importantly, by consumers. Many designers utilize "journey" frameworks in their work in an attempt to consider each way in which a product or service might be used. In this same line of thought, it is important to consider the "journey" of the object or service itself and each of the user-types with which it may come into contact.

Working with pharmacists and prototypes on the job itself could have led Target to release a design that was loved not only by consumers but also pharamacists themselves.

Update: I was asked if this could be posted in the Institute of Design's student newsletter and it just got released this past Friday. Read this and more here: engageID newsletter.


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