When Identifying the Problem Isn’t Enough: Lessons from Boxed Cake Mix by Ann M. Aly, TechFlow Director of Human Centered Design

By Ann M. Aly, TechFlow Director of Human Centered Design

What do cake mix recipes and government websites have in common? The answer is that people navigate them with varying levels of clarity and success.

No matter what type of product or service you offer, there is a person who is counting on that product to improve their life in some way. As customer experience (CX) researchers, our goal is to help solve a variety of real-world problems that people have. So, what happens when identifying a problem or gap in the market isn’t enough? Is there a difference between solving a problem and solving a problem correctly? (Spoiler alert: yes)

Let’s return to my mention of cake mix again for a moment, as it is considered one of the first clear CX examples in popular American culture. Back in the 1950s, Betty Crocker understood its target customer and the largest culinary problem in dual-parent working households: not having enough time for home-cooked meals. With this insight in hand, Betty Crocker released a product to solve that problem: “just add water” boxed cake mix. To everyone’s surprise, the first run of their “just add water” cake mix tanked. Abysmally.

When Betty Crocker hired a team to investigate why it failed, they realized that “just add water” cake mix didn’t solve the problem (having less time to cook) in a way that made sense for their customers. Many customers felt like they were “deceiving” their guests and families with these quasi-homemade cakes.  However, they still wanted the convenience of a pre-made baking mix without the guilt. Cake Mix 2.0 split the difference between convenience and involvement in a way that made sense to customers: adding water and fresh eggs. The resulting success of boxed cake mixes lines the aisles of grocery stores everywhere today and now accommodates vegans, gluten-free folks, and more flavors than one can count.

How does solving the right problem in the right way come into play for TechFlow’s CX team? Our CX team doesn’t work with cake mixes (unfortunately), but our methods aren’t too far removed. Like the Betty Crocker research team, we get inside the head of the customers to truly understand what their needs and perspectives are with an understanding that it’s not always what you might assume. There are a lot of subtle, but impactful examples of CX work in the government space, including:

  • Making sure online Medicare benefits are easy to use for seniors and disabled people, who may need accommodations such as larger font, screen readers, or access to a help desk number.
    • Helping USDA discover that their federal loan officers serve as trusted advisors to new and prospective farmers, who may be lost in the complicated process of securing a loan for their farm to provide for their family and community.
    • Learning what information FEMA needs when responding to a hurricane, such as accurate weather forecasts, detailed maps, and stable communication signals so they can help people evacuate safely.
    • Providing Veterans Affairs with timely feedback from veterans and their families as they apply for and receive benefit decisions.

TechFlow’s CX team is small but mighty. I’m grateful to be part of our team of researchers from various backgrounds, including Software Development, Psychology, Academia, and Finance. In addition, we have experience with 21 federal agencies between us! All of this prepares us to build relationships with our customers and advocate for their needs.

Our current work with the federal government challenges us to keep all these lessons in mind. At present, we’re conducting research on an information-sharing platform that has 150,000 users from a variety of public safety industries. Similar to the first boxed cake mix, we have to be careful not to assume that any solution is the right solution, but rather, that it might take several flavors, recipes, or ingredient substitutions to help our users keep their communities safe.


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