Why We Fail Blog

Learning from Experience Design Failures

Posts written by Victor Lombardi

  • Can Good IA Lead to Brand Failure?

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    Here’s a story about a website I created several years ago that I had considered a success and now, upon reflection, see as a partial failure.

    When it comes to measuring the success of information architecture, I usually think of clearly measurable criteria, such as findability. I ask someone to find something in a website and measure if they can and how long it takes. Easy.

    But what if IA goes deeper than that?

    For several years I did pro-bono work for my kids’ preschool. It started one day when the school’s website disappeared. That’s right, it just disappeared. And it was just a few weeks before their big registration period. Apparently a non-profit that received a grant to make websites for schools had built a reasonably nice site for free. But when the grant ran out, the organization disappeared. And the hosting account and all the website files disappeared too. All the school was left with was their domain name.

    My wife heard about this and volunteered me to save the day. I was used to these sort of client-driven fire drills in the consulting world, so I was able to conduct some geurilla research, gather assets, and build a site based on a purchased template in a little over a week. Success, right?

    Months afterwards, the school scraped together about $16,000 to hire a local agency to build them another site. While my ego stung a bit, this decision made sense: they wanted more functions and a CMS which my site didn’t have. Fair enough. Unfortunately the agency-built site had several “coming soon” sections that were never filled in, used an oddball CMS that was difficult to use, and overall was hard to maintain.

    My version didn’t have these problems. I built a one-page site that was long but one could easily find everything by scrolling down. There wasn’t any superfluous content or navigation. But the biggest problem with it, and why the school replaced it, wasn’t the information architecture’s performance. It was about how the brand was projected by that single page. It didn’t look like a “real” website; it didn’t look “normal.” Normal websites have navigation along the top and maybe the side. The pages aren’t more than 2 screens long (with the exception of articles). And while the school was happy I came to the rescue and gave them something when they needed it, ultimately they didn’t want a site that projected an image that was outside their perception of convention.

    So that’s a lesson I learned: IA is also brand, and brand matters.

    Victor Lombardi is the design director at CapitalOne, and the author of Why We Fail: Real Stories and Practical Lessons from Experience Design Failures. He helped turn around a failing media business at Fox Mobile Group through the development of a new web platform and mobile apps. He walks the walk by developing his own product, Nickel, with the goal of making personal financial planning accessible to everyone. Follow him on Twitter or buy his book

    204 Startup Failure Post-Mortems

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    If you’re starting up a new company or product, it wouldn’t hurt to scan these 204 Startup Failure Post-Mortems to learn what not to do from startups who fizzled.

    One in particular, struck me in a twisted sort of way: this postmortem of SunEdison’s backruptcy:

    SunEdison at its core is a boring construction company, that earns the trust of its institutional investors by being boring and managing risks … [but the company’s senior executives] didn’t want to be boring, they wanted to be a technology company.

    Victor Lombardi is the design director at CapitalOne, and the author of Why We Fail: Real Stories and Practical Lessons from Experience Design Failures. He helped turn around a failing media business at Fox Mobile Group through the development of a new web platform and mobile apps. He walks the walk by developing his own product, Nickel, with the goal of making personal financial planning accessible to everyone. Follow him on Twitter or buy his book

    Leading Groups to Learn From Accidents

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    Etsy has created a guide for facilitators investigating why accidents happened there: Debriefing Facilitation Guide: Leading Groups at Etsy to Learn From Accidents (PDF)

    Notably, they jettison the old model that places blame on people who forgot to do something, and instead focus on learning how they can improve and making changes:

    Most traditional accident investigations tend to focus on discovering things around an event that never actually happened. In an attempt to prevent future accidents, there is an underlying assumption (Shorrock, 2014) for this somewhat peculiar emphasis, which is:

    Someone did not do something they should have, according to someone else.

    Through this lens, what generally surfaces in investigations are “findings” about what people did not do (pay attention, make the right decision, etc.) rather than what they actually did. Without anyone really noticing, these items get labeled as “human error” and through a seductive and convenient contortion of logic, an event that never actually happened is deemed after the fact as the “cause” of the accident. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this results in an obvious recommendation for the future:

    “Next time, do what you should.”

    Unfortunately, this approach does not result in the safer and improved future we want.

    The perspective now known as the “New View” on accidents and mistakes flips this thinking around, providing a different path to improvement and learning (Dekker, 2002). We wholeheartedly believe in this approach at Etsy. We’ve invested in operationalizing it on an organizational level (Allspaw, 2010) and have shared our perspective publicly.

    Engineering vs Evolution

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    Tim Hartford talks about following the “God Complex” of designing with a great engineer vs taking a genetics-inspired approach of generating many random variations, testing them, and repeating the process over dozens of generations until you have something that works very well.

    It’s a difference of trying to avoid anything that looks like failure and embracing trail and error as part of the design process.

    Thanks to the UX Book Club Berlin

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    I skyped in to the UX Book Club Berlin meet up and they had probably the best questions from any audience I’ve talked to. And the best compliment: “For an American, you did a surprisingly good job of answering all our questions.” 🙂

    How Twitter Won in the First Place

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    Twitter suffers an irrepressable flow of negative criticism from the media and Wall Street. Today we hear that Twitter’s CEO is stepping down. As a media force of our time we all have a stake in what happens to Twitter.

    Eight days ago the investor Chris Sacca published a popular and very long recommendation called What Twitter Can Be. He gets into ideas about live events and hand curation I’m skeptical about, but I think he nails the high-level solution:

    1. Make Tweets effortless to enjoy.
    2. Make it easier for all to participate, and
    3. Make each of us on Twitter feel heard and valuable.

    In my book I wrote a case study on Twitter vs. Pownce. Pownce had more features. Pownce had better visual design. Pownce didn’t crash everyday. And yet Twitter won and Pownce closed down. Why? Twitter focused on making it easier to join, read, and tweet.

    1. Pownce restricted new accounts to keep its backend from overloading whereas Twitter let everyone in.
    2. Pownce focused on rolling out great features whereas Twitter focused on integrating with everyone else’s platform.

    In other words, Twitter was focused on growth at the expense of what we traditionally think of as good product design, resulting ultimately in a better customer experience because they provided a microblogging service with a critical mass of readers and tweeters.

    I’d love to see them double down on that original approach that made them great. Ignore all the bells and whistles that make the products cool for people in San Francisco and get radically easier to participate.

    Here’s a video where I talk about the Pownce v. Twitter case study.

    What I Got Wrong About the Zune

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    I just finished reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Great book. And the chapter on the making of the iPod revealed something I didn’t know before and got wrong in my book. I thought Apple engineered the iPod from scratch, but actually they contracted with a company called PortalPlayer whose prototype became the basis of the iPod.

    I criticized Microsoft for fumbling the Zune launch by basing the first version on an existing Toshiba player, but actually both Microsoft and Apple got to market faster by using existing hardware designs. Of course, a key difference is that Apple heavily modified what PortalPlayer brought to the table. Whereas Microsoft customized the device, Apple reworked the entire user interface.

    But there’s another, more important, factor I did get right. I criticized Microsoft for not investing nearly enough in the Zune to complete with the iPod. I wrote:

    What does it take to go head-to-head with an industry leader in con- sumer electronics on visceral, behavioral, and reflective design?

    Four billion dollars.

    That’s how much Microsoft invested to build the Xbox game console business to compete with Sony’s PlayStation.19 There’s an interesting contrast between the Zune and the Xbox business outcomes. In 2001 the Xbox went to war with the Sony PlayStation, which, like the iPod, held the lead for several years before Microsoft entered the market. Unlike the Zune, the Xbox hardware and software were developed in-house and included new graphics technology that gave the Xbox a strategic advantage. In 2005 Microsoft released the second Xbox version, the 360, and went to great lengths to achieve world-class industrial design, first by hiring several different firms to submit designs and then hiring two more firms to submit even better ideas (Figure 5.9). The following year Microsoft released the first Zune. Whereas the Xbox found success from all-new designs, the Zune was created by revamping an existing Toshiba media player. The cost to create the Zune business was somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as compared to the Xbox’s $4 billion investment to develop the console and the service, create the marketing campaign, and attract third-party developers to develop games.

    By contrast, Apple–I learned from the book–spent even more than I imagined on the iPod. Jobs is quoted as saying,

    I had the crazy idea that we could sell just as many Macs by advertising the iPod. In addition, the iPod would position Apple as evoking innovation and youth. So I moved $75 million of advertising money to the iPod, even though the category didn’t justify one hundredth of that. That meant that we completely dominated the market for music players. We outspent everybody by a factor of about a hundred.

    So did Apple simply outspend Microsoft? Of course not. I argue that Apple won on reflective design, and I think I still have that right. You can judge for yourself if you read the book.