The elevator in our office building has a small LCD panel that shows information like the current floor, but when the total weight of passengers crosses a certain threshold it also adds a short note: “Sorry the elevator is crowded”.

It struck me – of all possible features for an elevator display, how did they decide that they needed this one? It has no impact on the elevator’s function of moving people vertically. And a crowded elevator is not the elevator’s fault (although this is most likely just an example of Japan’s self-deprecating approach to hospitality). So why was this message deemed necessary?

The answer, of course, is that when designing an elevator your customer is not the people riding the elevator. It’s the people buying the elevator, such as the owners of an office building. When they compare your elevator to competitors, “Ours will make your building more pleasant to visit” must be a key selling point.

This was a little reminder for me that it’s crucial to identify your true customer because it will have an enormous effect on your product’s direction.