Why We Fail Blog

Learning from Experience Design Failures

Posts written by Victor Lombardi

  • Top Gear Mocks The iDrive (whew)

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    I have a whole case study in the book about BMW’s iDrive, and (no surprise) I’m pretty harsh on it. There’s always a risk that BMW will go and make it better and my writing will just come off as a bunch of petty whining.

    Which is why it’s a relief every time I see another reviewer pan iDrive, even better when it’s the irreverent Top Gear crew mocking it in a smart English accent…

    The Book is Published! (THANK YOU!)

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    Today Rosenfeld Media officially launches my book. It was a long journey where the destination wasn’t clear until earier this year when the final chapters came together. I love what we created, and I’m very curious how you like it.

    I’m filled with humility and gratitude for the many people who contributed their time and effort. As a small gesture to share this achievement I am posting the acknowledgments from the book here:

    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 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. Thank you 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 surely have my gratitude.

    –Victor Lombardi, Montclair, NJ, USA, May 2013

    My Citi Bike Failure/Success

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    photo 1-1.JPG

    Figure 1: Lou Rosenfeld pays for Citi Bike

    photo 2-2.JPG

    Figure 2: Lou Rosenfeld calls Citi Bike technical support

    The Citi Bike bicycle sharing system is the big new thing in New York City these days. So yesterday when I was hanging out with my publisher in Union Square Park on a beautiful day and we realized we both had meetings in midtown, it was a great opportunity to try out bike sharing.

    I went to the kiosk to pay, and was disappointed. The inevitable comparison is to the Metrocard (subway) vending machines which were designed way back in 1999 and are still much better. For Citi Bike, I have to bend way over, strain to see a screen in the sun, the type looks crappy, the touchscreen software wasn’t integrated with the hard keypad, there were way too many screens to go through, and once it directed me to touch the “next” key when there was no “next” key. I’m not familiar with the reasoning behind the pricing schedule, but if I just want take one trip, $10 is a bit steep compared to a cab. But my bigger emotional problem is with the 30-minute time limit. As soon as I checked out my bike, there’s an anxiety about whether I’m going to make it to my destination in time. And forget about stopping for a spontaneous ice cream on the way.

    At the end of the long transaction, I received a vague error message and wasn’t able to pay for a bike. So Lou, kind man that he is, bought two rides. I took my code and unlocked a bike easily enough. But his code wouldn’t work on any of the many bikes present. He made a few calls to Citi Bike tech support but couldn’t get through. Faced with the prospect of being late to his meeting, he hopped in a cab.

    What’s good about Citi Bike is just about everything else. Since it’s the hot thing in NYC, lots of people turned to look and smile at me, which is unheard of among jaded New Yorkers. And when I stopped to find the nearest bike rack an attractive woman gave me directions and chatted me up. The bikes are solid, surprisingly light, and easy to ride. The three speeds are selected quickly, so I could start in first, rapidly upshift to second and third, and then switch back to first at red lights. Cycling in Manhattan is not for the faint of heart, but I’ve always enjoyed the adrenaline rush of avoiding cars cutting me off and food delivery guys rushing at me in the wrong direction.

    After heading two blocks west and 24 blocks north plus a short delay finding the bike rack, I texted Lou: “Arrived.” His reply: “Still in cab.”

    Will Facebook Home Fail or Succeed?

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    I don’t have a case study of Facebook in my book (lucky them) but I do cite them for being quick to react to customer backlash before things get too ugly (e.g. Beacon). So when a friend mentioned Facebook Home as a potential failure, I perked up and decided to start collecting research on the system.

    Here’s Facebook’s Home section. At launch, the New York Times said, Facebook Home “effectively turns the Facebook news feed into the screen saver of a smartphone, updating it constantly and seamlessly with Facebook posts and messages.” TNW noted, “passed the 500,000 download mark on the Google Play store after a little over a week in the wild, though it continues to accumulate mostly negative reviews and has sunk to an average rating of 2.2.”

    Walt Mossberg concludes, “Facebook Home is a very clever and very well-done product that will delight Facebook fans. If you aren’t in that category, or prefer the standard Android user interface, it won’t be right for you.” David Pogue asks, “Why?”

    Satell in Forbes argues that Home will probably fail but it doesn’t matter, it’s part of Zuckerberg’s iterative path toward great products. Kumpurak in TechCrunch makes a similar argument, but theorizes the iteration is at the partnership level as well.

    Constine in TechCrunch delves into the design decisions influencing the customer experience and finds that iOS-weilding Facebook developers left out some vital Android bits.

    Personally, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more comparison of Home to PointCast, if only to refresh our memory of what not to do.

    Keeping a secret from your customers

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    The Segway is a good example of the kind of product I profile in the book: it was well-designed. It had great technology. And many smart, experienced business people believed it would succeed. But customers didn’t like it.

    So why didn’t I include it in the book? Well, the lessons just seem so obvious. I think Paul Graham summed it up nicely in a one-page article: “Someone riding a Segway looks like a dork…. The reason you look like a dork riding a Segway is that you look smug. You don’t seem to be working hard enough.”

    In the book I delve deeper into this type of failure in a case study on the Microsoft Zune, a more nuanced failure. As designers, I think it’s helpful to look at these failures through Don Norman’s emotional design framework, particularly the part about reflective design: “how it makes one feel, the image it portrays, the message it tells others about the owner’s taste.”

    Graham understands this, and when he offers design advice it’s not about the function or usability, it’s about the styling:

    So there may be a way to capture more of the market Segway hoped to reach: make a version that doesn’t look so easy for the rider. It would also be helpful if the styling was in the tradition of skateboards or bicycles rather than medical devices.

    In my book I go beyond the design cause of the failure and try to expose the underlying organizational problems. Unlike many analysts, I don’t think the hype preceding the Segway launch was the problem, because the product could have lived up to the hype (in the book, I discuss this regarding Google Wave). I agree with Graham’s argument that the design process was flawed because it was what I call “Keeping a secret from your customers”:

    Curiously enough, what got Segway into this problem was that the company was itself a kind of Segway. It was too easy for them; they were too successful raising money. If they’d had to grow the company gradually, by iterating through several versions they sold to real users, they’d have learned pretty quickly that people looked stupid riding them.

    Developing in secret isn’t always a problem. But if you’re creating something entirely new that relies on the customer experience for success, you need to test the actual customer experience.

    What are your questions about the “Why We Fail” book?

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    There’s an FAQ section in the front of all Rosenfeld Media books (here’s an example). I could take the easy path and just make up the questions and then answer them, but unfortunately I take this stuff way more seriously than is good for me. So please help me by telling me what questions you have, and I will duly answer them, both in the book and here on this website.

    You can get snarky too, e.g. Isn’t learning from failure overrated?

    It’s a History Book Too

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    I’m in Baltimore for the Information Architecture Summit and one compelling theme to emerge is about what our field must do to make progress. To paraphrase Matt Nish-Lapidus, we need to be able to give and receive critique to learn from others. To critique, we need a shared language. To have a shared language, we need some standard vocabulary and history. We don’t all need to agree to share the same school of thought, but we should be able to communicate across schools of thought.

    Though I haven’t thought of myself as a historian of our field, in some sense that’s what I’ve done. I’ve rallied points of views like Scott Berkun’s who said the greatest disease is a “lack of sharing lessons from failure”.

    Everyone loves to make fun of Microsoft Bob, but few can articulate why it failed. If you don’t understand why it failed, you don’t have any reason for laughing so hard, and you likely aren’t half as smart as you think you are.

    At the end of each of my case studies of failure, I tried to both objectively sum up what the experience failure was, and subjectively suggest what we can learn from each story. I hope that will be my small contribution to building a shared history of our field.

    Platform Follows People

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    James Whittaker blogged about why he left his position as development director at Google+ and I thought his daughter had the biggest insight:

    As it turned out, sharing was not broken. Sharing was working fine and dandy, Google just wasn’t part of it. People were sharing all around us and seemed quite happy. A user exodus from Facebook never materialized. I couldn’t even get my own teenage daughter to look at Google+ twice, “social isn’t a product,” she told me after I gave her a demo, “social is people and the people are on Facebook.” Google was the rich kid who, after having discovered he wasn’t invited to the party, built his own party in retaliation. The fact that no one came to Google’s party became the elephant in the room.

    Building a platform from scratch is an enormous uphill battle. I argue in my book that part of the reason that the personal finance service Wesabe lost to Mint is that Mint focused on the customer experience while Wesabe spread it’s more modest resources very thin, trying to create a platform. Platforms often start with small, strong features like Google’s search and Facebook’s updates. Once you have a large audience returning regularly, you can offer them new abilities, and possibly leverage that popularity into a platform.

    Google+ was trying to build a sharing platform from scratch, a steep uphill battle, without having an audience first. Platform follows people.

    Some nice comments on Chapter 10

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    I plan to post book reviews, good or bad, on this blog as they come in. Here’s the first, from one of my tech reviewers who sent some gushing nice comments on my last “recommendations” chapter.

    I’ve read it. I love it. I think as I thought before that this chapter ties everything that comes before it together so nicely — and in a practical sense. You have laid out a loose template so that this can be put into practice.

    The steps you take, Step 0 – Step 4. Love. Love. Love. You take the discussion in the previous chapters and set it up perfectly for how it can be done. It’s basic, but not dummied down, so you will reach a wide variety of levels with your audience. This is a difficult balance to achieve, but you have done it.

    Also, interspersing your thoughts based on your expertise/knowledge with the factual information personalizes this chapter. It could have been really dry, but doing that kept it from going there.

    I like that you have a “template” of sorts so people can take this and apply it in a way that will be meaningful for them and their work.

    Finally, I like that you have driven home that it’s the experience, not the product. You have also made my reading list even longer as I want to delve further into this through the resources you have listed. In my opinion, as a person who reads a lot, you have achieved greatness. I want to learn more. Your book has set that up.

    Thank you for sharing this with me!