Are you speaking your customer’s language?

October 7, 2016

As a user experience consulting firm we always say that the user is at the center of our world. Our clients hire us to consult on transactional, behind the login experiences because we understand how to provide the very best experience for their customers while meeting their business goals and objectives.  Our job is to evaluate a process and provide ways to make it better and more efficient and we do that by having a clear understanding of:

  1. What someone needs to accomplish
  2. How often they need to do it
  3. How important it is to their every day life

When we evaluate an existing application we often see processes that are implemented with an internal focus. Meaning our client assume that the vast majority of their audiences understand and have the same level of expertise, deep industry knowledge and use the same language as they do.

While this approach can work for some specialized industries, it often fails when the goal is to engage new customers. We find that users who are researching a product or a service for the first time generally get lost quickly when our clients start using a lot of industry jargon, and specialized product names.

Companies that lead with their own language and internal positioning generally make assumptions about the level of understanding or knowledge their audience has about them and the product or service they offer. As user experience practitioners we first try to understand how someone uses something instead of solving problems based on a collection of assumptions, technical feasibility and shortcuts.

Buying gas is a good example of an every day process that is positioned from the gas station’s perspective that fails to consider the experience of the customer – especially when it comes to the design of the purchasing user interface.


Most people who purchase gas need to make a few decisions. The gas station also has some requirements for the transaction as well. Let’s take a look at the process based on user objectives and the business requirements.

  • Primary User Goal: I want to buy fuel for my car.
  • Primary Business Goal: We want to sell fuel to people.
  • Secondary Business Goal: We want to sell people other things and have them return to buy more fuel when they need it.

User Decisions

These are the core decisions a user needs to make in order to successfully purchase fuel from a gas station:

  1. Pay at the pump or go into the gas station and pay?
  2. Use a credit card or a debit card?(that will require me to enter a pin number)
  3. What octane grade do I want?
  4. Do I need a receipt?
  5. Do I need a car wash? (not required for gas purchase)
  6. Do I want anything else? (not required for gas purchase)

Business goals and requirements

These are the business goals and requirements the gas station has in order to sell fuel to the customer based on questions they will need to ask in order to have a successful trans action.

  1. How do you want to pay for your fuel? (cash, credit or debit )
  2. Is your card valid?
  3. What kind of gas do you want?
  4. Do you need a receipt?

Secondary questions

  1. Do you want a carwash?
  2. Do you need anything else?

User Experience

While the fuel purchasing process is pretty consistent between gas stations., the designs of the fuel pump user interfaces are remarkably different.

Most address the needs of the business first and force the customer to struggle with inconsistency and a system that does not match their mental model for the task.

Let’s be clear, nobody notices an exceptional user experience when they’re buying gas – that is the point.  A great user experience for a common transaction is one that is seamless to the point of invisibility.

Consistency is also a big factor in terms of managing a user’s expectations and assumptions. Here are a few examples of gas station interfaces I have run across in the last few weeks.


The first thing I notice when looking at these interfaces side-by-side is how inconsistent color and placement of functionality is between them:

  • They all use essentially the same color palette, but the colors represent different actions on each pump.
  • Finding the “yes” and “no” buttons takes some time and requires the customer to read – especially when the word “yes” is combined with receipt.
  • In a transactional screen red often indicates “stop” and interface #2 uses red interchangeably for yes and no.

Photo of example gas station interfaces


The first decision the user needs to make in this process is to decide whether to pay at the pump or pay inside. Interface #1 and #4 address this by providing a button for each decision. Yet most customers who choose to pay at the pump start their process by swiping their credit or debit card. I have not been able to come up with a use case that would require the pay outside button. Eliminating this functionality may provide a more efficient experience.

All the interfaces present a number pad for entering a ZIP code or PIN number but why are there “phone-like” letters associated with each number. I can’t recall the need to ever enter letters into a gas pump in the thousands of times I have purchased gas. I suspect this is a legacy item (meaning it has always been there) or it is necessary for someone who does maintenance, programming or diagnostics of the machine.  Either way those letters are one more item that introduces a distraction for the end user who will more than likely never use the feature.

The Solution

Looking at the process from my perspective (focus group of one) this is the interface that I would want to see in a gas pump. The order of operation is in line with the way I as a user makes a purchase. The design of the interface is user centered yet satisfies to the business goals and requirements of the gas station.

Example Interface Image

  • The process moves in a more logical order.
  • The pay inside button is eliminated.
  • There is a clear distinction between “yes” and “no” commands and a distinct difference between saying no and canceling the transaction.
  • The right side of the interface is used for less common commands such as getting, entering numbers (no letters) and a clear action to delete an entry or “enter” the parameters you are inputting.

Designing with an internal focus is a common mistake many companies and organizations make when they approach a user interface project. The only way to truly optimize an interface is to talk to and observe the people who use it. Ask questions about the process and find ways to address business goals and requirements in a way that also provides a great experience for your customer.

At Crux Collaborative solving complex interface problems is what we do. Contact us to learn more about how we can help uncover your user’s objectives and meet all of your business goals and requirements.

By John Golden

John’s career in interactive media design began in 1995 and has spanned over two decades with a focus on developing simple, streamlined approaches for complex problems.

View John's Bio


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