Why We Fail Blog

Learning from Experience Design Failures

Posts written by Victor Lombardi

  • 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.

    Welcome to the Failure Age!

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    Perkin Purple

    Our relationship with innovation finally began to change, however, during the Industrial Revolution. While individual inventors like James Watt and Eli Whitney tend to receive most of the credit, perhaps the most significant changes were not technological but rather legal and financial. The rise of stocks and bonds, patents and agricultural futures allowed a large number of people to broadly share the risks of possible failure and the rewards of potential success. If it weren’t for these tools, a tinkerer like Perkin would never have been messing around with an attempt at artificial quinine in the first place. And he wouldn’t have had any way to capitalize on his idea. Anyway, he probably would have been too consumed by tilling land and raising children.

    Welcome to the Failure Age!

    How Bad UX Killed Jenny

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    Jonathan Shariat in How Bad UX Killed Jenny tells a heartbreaking tale of a medical record software interface that led to the death of a little girl…

    …the three nurses, with over 10 years experience, were too distracted trying to figure out the software they were using…

    His call-to-arms needs to make it’s way back to universities that teach software design so that idealistic young students know there’s a fruitful career to be had saving people’s lives through better design!

    It’s failure all the way down.

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    Samuel Beckett, Pic, 1

    Stephen Marche argues in the New York Times that for all the business world’s embrace of failure, they’ve got nothin’ on writers…

    “Fail better,” Samuel Beckett commanded, a phrase that has been taken on by business executives as some kind of ersatz wisdom. They have missed the point completely. Beckett didn’t mean failure-on-the-way-to-delayed-success, which is what the FailCon crowd thinks he meant. To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down.

    At the center of this web of catastrophes and losses and despairs and mistakes sits a single, obvious culprit: the act of writing itself. In the best work, the intentions of the author fall away, leaving an open field for readers to play in, and they create meanings that may have nothing to do with the author’s. Jonathan Swift famously intended “Gulliver’s Travels” as an indictment of all humanity but ended up leaving a story for children. The joy of language is also a torment. “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to,” Flaubert wrote, “while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

    Reader Reviews #6/7: “eye-opening….thoroughly researched”

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    Why We Fail is available in eBook form at O’Reilly and all the reviewers there gave me 5 stars! Yay!

    Paul in Austin writes:

    The case studies alone provide an very interesting read to anybody who has some interest in technology in general.

    Each case study has been thoroughly researched with plenty of references. The author also provides video clips to help the reader visualize the user experience of the discussed products.

    In addition to user interface developers or designers, product managers and architects will also benefit from the methods for avoiding future UX failures described in the second half of the book.

    BOTTOM LINE Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

    Ken in Hoboken writes:

    Too many books focus on success but I feel the best way to learn is by studying failures.

    Prior to reading “Why We Fail”, the only other book I read along the same lines was “Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years” by Carroll & Mui.

    I am an engineer, not a designer, but I often consult on projects where no UX person is hired, forcing me to assume that role in some fashion. I found this book to provide great insights that I would not have otherwise considered.

    For example, as an engineer, I focus on meeting the user requirements, but the case study on the failure of the Microsoft Zune music player (Chapter 5) demonstrates how much more powerful the user experience is over the feature set.

    I found it an eye-opening revelation in Chapter 9 that Microsoft’s many expensive failures is due to its practice of sweeping mistakes under the rug and never sharing experiences with their product groups.

    Chapter 7’s discussion on ethics is a valuable addition to the material.

    I highly recommend this book.

    BOTTOM LINE Yes, I would recommend this to a friend

    RealNetworks and The Trap of Binary Thinking

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    While I was researching my book Why We Fail: Learning from Experience Design Failures I spent some time reading about people’s experience with RealNetworks, particularly the RealPlayer, and wondering if they were worthy of inclusion in the book, particularly the don’t be evil chapter. At that point there was no smoking gun, no hard evidence that Real intentionally did the wrong thing.

    But this week a story was published which confirmed my suspicions. It’s called The Graph That Changed Me. Here’s an excerpt:

    One day my manager showed me a horrible graph. It was pretty simple: the graph was steady, then it dropped straight down, then after a short period, the line shot straight back up and stayed level again:

    Artist’s rendering of why you probably don’t like RealPlayer much
    “That’s what happens when we do the right thing”, he said while pointing at the drop, “and that’s how much money we lose. We tried it just to see how bad it was for our bottom line. And this is what the data tells us.”

    “Wow,” I said, taken aback. My employer clearly had two options: “do the right thing” or “be profitable”. That was the position they had maneuvered themselves into through a series of bad management decisions.

    That “series of bad management decisions” may involve a slippery slope of subtle temptations and minor rationalizations, not one big bad decision to be evil. But having been there I know it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of binary thinking. You can hear it in that story:

    two options: “do the right thing” or “be profitable”.

    Design thinking is abductive, inventing new options to find new and better solutions to problems. In the universe of all possible businesses, were there more options than just “do the right thing” or “be profitable”? Of course. We just need to be willing to try harder, apply our creativity, and make “do the right thing and be profitable” two constraints of the design problem.