Do you remember those 3D things from the 90s that were often the go-to page in the newspaper’s comic section on Sundays?  They made fun of them on a Seinfeld episode way back.  Elaine’s boss saw one and no matter what he did he couldn’t see the image in the picture.  It frustrated the hell out of him.  Well, store aisles are kind of like that too. Just a sea of colors that confuse people and make their heads hurt.  Who’s to blame for that?  Us designers, I suppose.  But only if we don’t do our homework and design the right thing.

How do you design the right thing? That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?  Well I’ve got one word for you kid, research. As designers, we’re usually hired to make something look better, work better, appeal more, communicate better, etc.  Why?  To sell more of the things we’re designing. So design is essentially a driver of a business transaction if you really think about it.

What design does is link the emotional part of a transaction to the financial part, and as designers, we become a critical part in that consumer’s decision-making process through the brand dialogues we facilitate.

We’re dot connectors; understanding the people that we’re selling to help us connect the dots between the person, the product and the brand dialogue we’re creating.


In retail contexts, what are we trying to communicate to the consumer? Each retail scenario forces a person to explore, identify and deselect from a broad range of product choices quickly. So how do you stand out? In our world, that’s usually through packaging, and it needs to be the right packaging, with the right information to appeal to the emotional state of that purchase decision and the purpose that purchase will fulfill. The driver that pulls someone to your package and the connection it forms that builds a relationship for repeat use.

Years ago, I was working at a design firm and as most designers I had done what I thought was research, but was in hindsight just a handful of designers looking at things and trying to pull out some insights. As our projects became bigger and more complex, research became more and more important. So we hired a bona fide researcher. And I recall having an exchange with him about a project and him stopping me mid-sentence only to ask me one of the most profound questions of my young career.

“What do you want to learn?”  It was that simple. What do I want to learn? Well, everything I suppose. Everything I can learn to make a better experience for the end user.

We can play therapist and stand at every aisle and ask people, but even if we could that wouldn’t give us the answers we’re looking for. However, asking people during the design process is absolutely critical. Of course, budgets aren’t limitless and not everything can be solved by research alone, so now what?

Before we conduct research, we need to break down three reasons to even do research in the first place:

1. To understand the user.
2. The usage occasions
3. The motivation.

Even before that, we need to ask two hard questions:
1. Who am I?
2. Why are we doing this?

Does your product fill a functional or emotional need? Does it fill both? Are you a lifestyle brand? Are you a commodity product in a mature and over-crowded category? How do you stand out and how do you connect?

All this means that we have a lot of people to learn from, which is awesome. So let’s start there.

Have you ever heard of the expression, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”?  Shopping is a journey, for both the person buying the product and the product itself.  But they don’t spend the entire journey together. As designers, we have to consider the entire journey, which means each part has things we need to learn about and design against. Let’s look at the journey for a minute and break down what happens…


This is the user journey: online/circular >> store >> aisle >> shelf >> use, etc.

Parts of the journey can be defined as moments of truth.  We primarily focus and design for the FMOT and the SMOT, which are the First Moment of Truth (the first time you see something at shelf) and the Second Moment of Truth (the first time you engage with a product).

At the beginning, we would do some sort of audit or competitive landscape assessment to determine all the players in the space, how they talk about themselves, and how they differentiate. Then we’ll do what they’re not doing, or God forbid, we’ll try to out–yell them all at retail to make sure we stand out.

However, I want to work backwards and start at the end of the user experience to understand what worked right, what didn’t, where it lived, how often it was used, how he/she felt about it, etc.

I wonder if the product lived up to expectations? When it was all done, did they go buy another? Why is it in the trash and not the recycling? Did we not use the right material? Was there not a refill opportunity or a secondary use? Did we not verbally communicate that it was in fact recyclable? Where did this go wrong? All great questions and things to learn, and we can do that by spending time in context. It’s always really eye opening to ask people to explain how they use things and why they do things a certain way. You can do that in interviews or you can ask users to keep a diary over a course of time where they verbally and visually document what they did with your product. You learn a lot about how it fits into their lives and their daily habits and ceremonies.

So what about while it was being used?  Did the consumer like how it felt? Was it too heavy? Was it easy for them to know where their hand goes and how to use it? Where do they keep it when not using it and why? Does it live alongside other products? Are those our brands too? This type of SMOT research can be done with contextual inquiry. It’s about asking the right questions, but also being able to observe how and what people do to uncover those unarticulated needs. Those become the really valuable nuggets to design from.

Working backwards, was it easy for the product to be found in the store? Was it in the aisle she expected? Were they a repeat shopper of our product? Did they just stumble upon it or was it planned? How/why did they pick ours over the competitors’?

Is the package communicating how it should be used? (maybe we saw a disconnect in home) Did it clearly communicate its benefits? Was it beautiful? Was it clearly identifiable and easy to shop? Welcome to FMOT.


At FMOT you are dealing with a number of factors that are very dependent on the category and the motivation for shopping that category in the first place. These are the critical moments in a brand engagement that connect with a person, and depending on the reason for the trip down the aisle where your product lives, is how you need to curate the FMOT for a user.

If you are shopping for detergent, however, you are likely shopping the brand first, which could be identified by either color or form language at a distance, or benefits and attributes like scent and ingredients when closer.

For example, if you are a workout fiend and you are shopping for supplements, you are likely looking for ingredients and benefits first.

There is a hierarchy of brand that needs to be clear to your users at FMOT and there are several types of research methodologies you can use depending on what you want to learn. Shop-alongs in context can work really well to understand in a one-on-one situation what someone’s motivation is for buying what they are buying. In other cases, you can do virtual research with full scale virtual shopping that uses eye tracking and heat mapping to show you what things catch a user’s eyes as they walk down a specific aisle of a specific store and a specific category. You can use this to evaluate existing products as well as incorporate in-progress designs to evaluate as part of the iterative design process, allowing you to gain knowledge and modify designs accordingly.

Well, what about before they even gets to the store? The first thing that occurs in the “consumer to product” engagement experience (shopping in layman’s terms) have key motivators driving it: Want and Need. Both of which are situations fueled by emotion.

Think about how different the situation of buying your child a present, versus buying an OTC medication, a furnace filter, a bottle of wine or pet food.

Upfront behavioral research in this context is critical in order to understand the emotional state of the individual we’re communicating with, to ensure we are addressing the motivations of that transaction through design.

So now that we have worked backwards, we see all the tools we actually have to be able to design an amazing experience that addresses every need from beginning to end and back again. So as designers we have 5 key things to ask:

1. What’s the motivation?
2. What’s the problem?
3. What should we learn?
4. How do we learn it?
5. How do we use the learnings?

That would be the difference between some firms that just design some pretty object but in what context?

Designing with research as your fuel is key. Everything that has a user has a series of moments that hook them to become consumers. How they find out about the thing.  Where to locate it. Where within the store (b&m or online) is it. Then once they find the aisle, they go through a process of identification in order to find the thing they are looking for. Then they buy it, transport it, get it home, open it, use it and store it.  Every single step of that process is an experience that we as designers can curate, and each step is also an opportunity for us to study that experience to optimize it for consumers and the products we are connecting them to.