Now available: Design for Impact by Erin Weigel

Frequently Asked Questions

These common questions and their short answers are taken from Victor Lombardi’s book Why We Fail: Learning from Experience Design Failures . You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. What kinds of products are described in this book?
    Of the ten products profiled in this book, four of them are websites (Classmates.com, Wave, Pownce, and Wesabe), two of them are services (Plaxo and OpenID), one is a software package (Final Cut Pro X), one is an operating system (Symbian), and two are hardware-based (iDrive and Zune). They were all generally created in the United States and Europe. All of them were designed for consumers rather than for businesses.
  2. Why did you choose those products?
    I began my research by surveying dozens of failed products—from small unheard-of start-ups to Boo.com, which spent more than $100 million; and from early consumer software such as WordStar to the most recent video games. I then focused on products that tried to innovate. There are certainly many examples of failed products that were attempts to copy others, or were simply incremental improvements over what came previously, but those cases aren’t as interesting or instructive. I also excluded products that failed merely because the creators were incompetent or whose lessons are outdated or irrelevant.See Chapter 1 for a longer explanation.
  3. How do you define “failure”?
    The failures in this book are customer experience failures. The products somehow failed to offer their audiences a good experience. As a result, the product either failed in the marketplace (e.g., Symbian) or the company was forced to change the product to offer a better experience in order to survive in the marketplace (e.g., Plaxo).Chapter 1 has more examples of this definition.
  4. Isn’t a “customer experience failure” just another way to say it was a bad design?
    This was often the case in the past when products were simpler and could be judged by their list of specifications, such as the speed of the processor or how many colors the screen could display. But today’s digital products are so complex we engage with them differently. A product such as a smartphone may seem good based on how it looks and its list of specifications, and it might function perfectly fine, but we don’t know if we like it until we try it. Our reasons for using these complex new products are multifaceted, and our experiences of them are emotional and subjective. They are experiential products, and they fail in experiential ways.In Chapter 1 I point to some videos that nicely illustrate the difference between design and experience.
  5. Isn’t there usually some other, underlying cause of the failure, such as hiring poorly trained designers?
    Sometimes, but for this book I tried to find stories that revealed more interesting, less obvious lessons. For example, a product might work fine for one audience but fail when given to a different audience (e.g., OpenID). Or one aspect of the experience we think might be vital, such as a website that is always available, doesn’t beat a competitor whose website is often down for maintenance (e.g., Pownce). Or two similar products might offer a similar experience to the consumer, but one might fail because of cultural and social reasons (e.g., Zune). In any case, I also look behind the experiential reason for failure to find what caused that failure.See the “Why the Experience Failed” and “The Underlying Cause” sections in the Summaries that end Chapters 2 through 8.
  6. Is experience design the main way products fail?
    Products can fail for many reasons, from malfunctioning technology to ineffective marketing. This book focuses on customer experience failure because it’s relatively new and not enough has been written about it to date.
  7. Isn’t learning from failure overrated?
    There’s an argument that says you should study your successes and then try to repeat those successes, making them a little better each time. That’s fine if what you’re doing is simple and is similar to something you’ve done in the past, such as designing a “Contact Us” form for a website. But what I see in the experience design field is change—a lot of change. Technology, products, customers’ expectations, and culture are all changing quickly. To think we can only repeat what worked in the past is wishful thinking. I believe we need methods to help us understand customers’ current experiences, quickly make design changes, and avoid failure on the product or project level.Chapter 1 has a longer explanation of why learning from failure is useful.
  8. You recommend using a design process based on the scientific method, but how is that relevant to design?
    First, because the scientific method is a universally understood, repeatable technique that underlies our civilization’s massive progress since the 17th century. Design is about creating something that works for people, and we can use the scientific method for discovering if that something did indeed work.Second, a reason the scientific method works well is because it seeks to remove psychological biases from our work by rationally and explicitly stating how our designs should work, how we will test them, and how we should evaluate the results of the tests.Chapter 9 discusses a host of psychological problems that lead to failure, and Chapter 10 outlines how to apply the scientific method to our work.
  9. How can I use this book to avoid failure in my work?
    There are at least three ways:If you make a product similar to the ones in this book, you can directly apply the lessons learned. For example, if your product involves social networking, you and your colleagues should read Chapter 6 about Pownce. Then, as a group, study the key points in the Lessons and Summary sections at the end of the chapter. Compare them to your tactics and strategy to see if you might be making the same missteps.Perhaps your products have started to be judged on their customers’ experience rather than product performance (see explanation in Chapter 1). For example, television, musical instruments, home automation, and automobile telematics are product categories currently making this transition. If so, focus on Chapters 5 and 8 to learn from other product categories (mobile phones and media players) that made this transition. Then you may want to start applying the method described in Chapter 10 to develop and test your products with your customers’ experience in mind.If you’ve had failures in the past, you can conduct a postmortem to understand why the products failed and make changes to avoid failure in the future. Use the method in Chapter 10, particularly step 1 (“Understand the Customer Experience”), and refer to the Resources section at the back of the book for more specific guidance.

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