More Design Lessons from the Tooth Fairy

A while ago I posted about what I’d learned about design from the tooth fairy. Well, yesterday my daughter lost another tooth and emphasized a few more design lessons.

She lost another tooth Monday night. She had very high hopes, given her prior experience with the magical exchange of a worthless discarded tooth for three shiny quarters. She went to bed with great anticipation, her tooth tucked into a ziplock baggie under her pillow. The next lesson: Prior experience sets expectations.

We had not discussed the timing of delivery, nor had she communicated with the Tooth Fairy about what she expected. It came the next day last time, so it was sure to happen again this time. Our customers may do the same thing, unless we make expectations explicit and surface potential delays as early as possible. Past performance is not always a good predictor of future results; we should have explicit deadlines and deliverables that are commonly agreed on and jointly adjusted as needed.

Unfortunately in the case of my daughter, the story does not end here.

You see, the Tooth Fairy forgot about the whole thing. My wife looked at me after breakfast, paused, and asked if the Tooth Fairy had come last night, pretty sure in advance of the answer. My daughter wasn’t up yet, so I snuck in to see what the situation was. It was a pitiful sight.

She was awake, but still curled up in bed, facing the door, with a heart-melting tremble in her lower lip. “He didn’t come,” she said plaintively.

“Are you sure?”

“My tooth is still there,” pointing at the pillow. I felt terrible. Which brings us to the next lesson: When customer expectations are not met, pain and sadness result—not just for the customer but for you.

Nobody likes to let someone else down, least of all those you love… or those who put food on your table. Do everything you can to meet your commitments. From an Old Testament perspective, this is just good ol’ telling the truth. From a New Testament perspective, it’s doing to others as you’d have others do to you. And even from a hedonistic perspective, it minimizes pain all the way around!

Eager to make her feel better, I knelt next to the bed (very close to her pillow, in fact) and asked my daughter a few questions. Then when the time was right, I sighed and asked her to check under her pillow again.

Wonder of wonders! A miracle! Three shiny quarters and no tooth. She beamed. She gave me a hug. She squealed, “He came right now!” And she forgot all about being jilted. The final design lesson: If you miss a commitment, make it up to the customer as soon as possible.

A speedy recovery is important after a failure, maybe even going the extra mile or two. The Tooth Fairy, had he been a little more foresighted or generous, might have supplied four quarters instead of the customary three, as a late penalty or show of good-will. Likewise, after a failure or disappointment, do something extra, something you’re not already obligated to do to show your customer they are a priority and that you have skin in the game.

Lastly, a lesson the Tooth Fairy did NOT teach this time around: When you mess up, fess up. And get it right next time. Pointing fingers doesn’t accomplish much. Your credibility is already on the line; your ability to deliver is in question. Putting the onus on somebody else just makes you look all the less in control. Take responsibility for the problem, then take responsibility for the solution and make things right.

I wonder what I’ll learn when my kids are old enough to lose their Wisdom Teeth…

posted by Ted Boren on Wednesday, Mar 14, 2007
tagged with design, commitments, deliverables