NDP Blog
David Lang

What Beef Lasagne can teach us about User Experience

This. Look at it. Now look at it again.

For a very, very short time in the 1980s, this perplexing Beef Lasagne could be found lurking deep in the cold, frosted depths of UK supermarket freezers. What exactly Colgate knew about this meat and pasta dish, so old it can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, remains lost to history. It wasn’t a huge success. In fact, it wasn’t even a modest success.

The thing is though, so much about this product makes logical sense:

Think about it. You’re a large successful corporation with a healthy product development budget and ambitious leadership. You’re looking for lucrative new markets or products and your research team are telling you that a few aisles away in the supermarket there’s a food revolution happening. What’s more, your existing customers are already part of this revolution. That sounds like an opportunity, a logical opportunity. The revolution was, of course, the ready meal.

In the 1980s, societal changes had started to reshape the family dynamic. With more women working, and working hours lengthening for everyone, domestic food preparation was subject to increasing time pressure.

The 1960s and 1970s had also seen the widespread adoption of the domestic fridge. By the mid to late 1970s these devices had begun to include freezers. As the 1980s rolled around, domestic freezes were commonplace enough that frozen food was taking off in the UK in a big way.

This potent mix of socio-demographic trends and technological innovation clearly presented an opportunity just too good to pass up.

Colgate were already a well-recognised brand on the supermarket shelves, they had killer behavioral insight, early entrant advantage into a growing market and strong customer synergy across product categories. And so, in 1982, the Colgate Kitchen Entrees range was launched.

I don’t need to tell you that this was an abject failure.

What’s so interesting about this particular lasagne is that more often than not, the image provokes an immediate negative reaction from people. Surely, had Colgate undertaken even a small amount of customer research in the early stages of development, this would have become apparent. Why wait until the product is on the shelf?

While Colgate Beef Lasagna is a textbook example of a poorly thought out brand extension, there’s a UX lesson here. One of the reasons we talk to actual users, bring them into the design process, build prototypes and then test those prototypes with our users… is that sometimes our closely-held assumptions of what is logical, simply isn’t for our users.

Working through a human-centred design process that is inclusive of users helps bring validation at critical decision-making stages. It’s impossible to completely avoid failure. However, failing fast over a 5-day sprint while gaining valuable insight into the problem space and the user needs...is always preferable to perplexing beef lasagne.