Why We Fail

Learning from Experience Design Failures

By Victor Lombardi

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  • Just as pilots and doctors improve by studying crash reports and postmortems, experience designers can improve by learning how customer experience failures cause products to fail in the marketplace. Rather than proselytizing a particular approach to design, Why We Fail holistically explores what teams actually built, why the products failed, and how we can learn from the past to avoid failure ourselves.

    The stories behind failures make for fascinating reading. But this book offers more. It provides important insights into both what can go right and what can go wrong in a product offering. To make great products, we need to understand what makes some fail and others succeed. To all the aspiring, young entrepreneurs who are reading this: take heed. Embrace failure to learn from failure. Learn from failure to avoid failure.

    Don Norman Co-founder, Nielsen Norman Group Author of The Design of Everyday Things (Revised and Expanded)

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    Table of Contents

    • Chapter 1: Embrace Failure
      • Why I Failed
      • Why This Stuff Is Really Important
      • Why We Learn from Failure
      • Why Experience Failure Is Different
      • Why Design ≠ Experience
      • Why You Should Keep Reading This Book
    • Chapter 2: Get the Right Experience
      • BMW iDrive
      • Google Wave
      • Lessons
      • Summary
    • Chapter 3: Get the Experience Right
      • OpenID
      • Lessons
      • Summary
    • Chapter 4: Platform Follows People
      • Wesabe
      • Lessons
      • Summary
    • Chapter 5: Design for Reflection
      • Microsoft Zune Media Player
      • Lessons
      • Summary
    • Chapter 6: Generate Critical Mass
      • Pownce
      • Lessons
      • Summary
    • Chapter 7: Do the Right Thing
      • Classmates.com
      • Plaxo
      • Lessons
      • Summary
    • Chapter 8: Cannibalize Yourself
      • Symbian
      • Final Cut Pro X
      • Lessons
      • Summary
    • Chapter 9: Why We Fail
      • Experience Matters
      • Three Key Elements
      • Thread the Line
    • Chapter 10: Avoid Failure
      • A Method That Avoids Failure
      • Scientific Methods
      • The Experience Development Method
      • Experience Development Summary
      • Conclusion

    FAQ

    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.

    Excerpts

    • Chapter 2: Published in UX Magazine (August 29, 2013)
    • Chapter 1: Published in Creative Bloq (April 2, 2014)

    Foreword

    Embrace failure, avoid failure: these two, apparently contradictory statements are the opening and closing chapter titles of Victor Lombardi’s enchanting, insightful book. Embrace, yet avoid—the apparent contradiction being resolved by recognizing that the trick is to learn from other people’s failures, the better to be able to avoid them for yourself. The message of the book is summarized by its subtitle: Learning from Experience Design Failures.

    Lots of people focus upon success, but failure is a far more effective teacher. I know this from my own experience: I’ve watched brilliant product releases such as Apple’s QuickTake digital camera and Newton personal digital assistant. I was an advisor to the company that produced the first digital picture frame, licensed to Kodak and released as the Kodak Smart Picture Frame. You’ve probably never heard of these three products, which is understandable: they all failed in the marketplace. But I learned more about business from those failures than from all the things I have done that succeeded. Success can make people feel good. Failure can make people better. But failure is a learning experience only if it is treated as one, with a reflective review of all that went right and all that went wrong.

    Reflective review—that’s the power of this book. Fascinating case histories of product failures, coupled with careful analyses of the products themselves and, just as important, the marketing efforts and other components of their release and subsequent history. Lombardi doesn’t just focus upon the failures and weaknesses. We learn of the strengths of each product—what was done right—as well as the weaknesses—what was done wrong. Thus, in a detailed analysis of Microsoft’s Zune music player, its strengths and virtues are properly praised. The product was excellent. The failure lay in the auxiliary components of the product: how it was marketed, whether the advertising campaign was substantive and long-lasting enough to overcome the huge advantage already existing for the major competition. Lombardi makes clear that had Apple’s iPod not existed, the Zune would have been declared a marvelous offering and probably would have gone on to a well-deserved, hefty success. Just having a great product is not sufficient.

    Products do not exist in isolation: they need a supportive surrounding environment. And above all, they must deliver a compelling user experience, one that allows purchasers to get excited by the potential and to overlook the weaknesses that all new products have. Lots of books and articles have analyzed failure from the perspective of business, or the technical features and functions, or company management style. The real power of this book comes from the exemplary lessons on the importance of user experience, analyses from the point of view of the people who have to use the product. Experience is in the minds of the people, not in the product itself, which is one of the reasons that the product itself is not enough. Similarly, great design is not enough. Great design is indeed required to provide the framework for great experiences, but design alone cannot do the job. The psychological environment plays a critical role, which is why great marketing is essential. Experience is subjective and illusory. It is emotion. And in products, it is essential.

    The power of Why We Fail is that it goes beyond the surface analysis of design, technology, or marketing. Instead, it treats all of these factors as an interconnected, related system. The analysis covers the entire product offering, providing a deep analysis of the many factors that go into success or failure.

    The stories behind failures make for fascinating reading. But this book offers more. It provides important insights into both what can go right and what can go wrong in a product offering. To make great products, we need to understand what makes some fail and others succeed. To all the aspiring, young entrepreneurs who are reading this: take heed. Embrace failure to learn from failure. Learn from failure to avoid failure.

    Don Norman
    Co-founder, Nielsen Norman Group
    Author of The Design of Everyday Things (Revised and Expanded)

    Acknowledgments

    This book was written over the course of two years and would not have been possible without the family, friends, and colleagues who supported my work. Though the topic of failure can be educational, interesting, and even thrilling at times, it can also be depressing, particularly when the failure is our own. I am deeply grateful to those who opened up and told me their stories, provided references, and took the time to review my work.

    Thank you, Ulrike, for your love in spite of my failures. Thank you, Dad— and all of my family—for your support.

    Thank you, Lou Rosenfeld, for working every day to be the best publisher in the world. Thanks to JoAnn Simony for the tough love editing I needed. Your thoughtfulness extended beyond merely editing to empathy with an author’s long struggle. Thank you Karen Corbett, Ben Tedoff, and everyone at Rosenfeld Media for supporting quality publishing.

    Thank you, Don Norman, for your gracious contribution, and thanks to Keith Instone, Michael Angeles, Scott Berkun, Paolo Borella, and Thomas Mann for technical reviews that made a material difference to my work. And special thanks to Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci for invaluable feedback and encouragement.

    Thank you, Monica Camhi and friends, and Donna Fabyonic, for the generous gift of solitude.

    Thanks to John McCrea, Chris Messina, Marc Hedlund, Preston Smalley, Phil Suessenguth, Daniel Burka, and David Evans for your courage to share difficult experiences.

    Many people provided valuable feedback, ideas, interviews, and assistance. Thanks to John Ferrara, Mike Lee, Peter Jones, Tanya Rabourn, James Kalbach, Peter Van Dijck, Stephen P. Anderson, Lorelei Brown, Perry Hewitt, Jimmy Chandler, Austin Govella, Dave Moon, Nicolas Nova, Joe Bilman, Manuel Toscano, Karen McGrane, Peter Kaufman, Dan D’Ordine, Lindsay Lifrieri, Jared Spool, Sonja Cole, Fred Wilson, Rory Cumming, Brad Smith, Jennifer Jones, Andrew Hinton, Russ Unger, Camilla Grane, Gloria Bell, Belinda Lanks, Jason Grigsby, Andrew Holz, Walter Mattingly, Michael Dila, John Blackburn, Bryce Johnson, Kevin Cheng, Patrick Lowery, Matthew Marco, Amy Lew, Mark Skinner, Michael McWatters, Kim Bieler, Whitney Quesenbery, Edward Loh, Bret Lider, Brant Cooper, Will Evans, Trevor Van Gorp, Peter Merholz, and the staff at the Montclair Public Library. I’m sure my faulty memory has misplaced some names, but those I missed also have my gratitude.

    Victor Lombardi, Montclair, New Jersey, May 2013

    Testimonials

    The stories behind failures make for fascinating reading. But this book offers more. It provides important insights into both what can go right and what can go wrong in a product offering. To make great products, we need to understand what makes some fail and others succeed. To all the aspiring, young entrepreneurs who are reading this: take heed. Embrace failure to learn from failure. Learn from failure to avoid failure.

    Don Norman Co-founder, Nielsen Norman Group Author of The Design of Everyday Things (Revised and Expanded)

    Success feels great. But beyond the fleeting sensation of good will, what does it tell you? Failure, on the other hand, provides a gold mine of insights that can help you do better in the future—if you’re willing to do the hard work required to evaluate why things went wrong. Victor’s book provides a useful guide, with lots of examples that make it clear that you’re not alone in screwing up.

    Karen McGrane, author of Content Strategy for Mobile

    Success is boring. Failure is much more interesting—and instructive. In this practical and well-researched book, Victor Lombardi presents a series of vignettes about design projects gone wrong. He wisely avoids the temptations of schadenfreude, however, instead transforming these cautionary tales into useful lessons for the modern designer.

    Alex Wright, Director of User Experience, The New York Times

    At a time when companies are urged to fail early and often, Victor uses multiple case studies to take a sober look at what causes failure in product development, and provides useful tools to help teams avoid failure. His careful and thoughtful analysis should be required reading for every product team.

    Neil Wehrle, Vice President of User Experience, betaworks

    A diverse set of case studies to help illustrate experience design and its role in the development of 21st-century digital products and services. While intended to help companies avoid failure because of poor experience design, it’s also a good reminder that mistakes and errors, as long as shared openly, can be an important part of the development road to success. Victor’s proposed Experience Development method is a contemporary twist on the scientific method. His method may prove to be a useful framework for helping companies develop successful digital products and services, where success is measured by the subjective qualities of the intended users’ experience.

    Leah Wang, Senior Vice President, Medscape/WebMD

    By examining ambitious failures through the lens of experience design, you’re able to better understand why these teams made the decisions they did and, in doing so, arm yourself with the tools needed to avoid similar pitfalls

    Alex Rainert, Head of Product, Foursquare

    Exceptional user experiences are rare. Failures are common. You’ll be quickly reminded of that in Victor’s insightful analysis. But it’s the important lessons that we tend to forget. This book is full of thoroughly researched and insightful case studies on user experience failures in the digital realm. You’ll want to keep this book on your shelf to re-read again in the future when the industry comes back around to the brink of repeating some of the same failures. But maybe you’ll be in a position to tip success with what you’ve learned.

    Mike Lee, Digital Strategist