Failure is an essential part of the design process. By embracing failure and sharing what we learn, we’ll make much better products in the long run.
In 2017 a new exhibition opened in Helsingborg, Sweden. It tackles one of my favourite topics in the whole wide world… Failure.
The Museum of Failure is the world’s largest collection of failed products and services. It’s a celebration of ideas that, though formed with the best of intentions didn’t quite pan out.
It’s easy to sit there and poke fun these. And admittedly some of them are pretty funny (take ‘Donald Trump : The Board Game’ as an example).
But that’s not why I love this museum.
I love this museum because it doesn’t brush failure under the carpet. Instead of shaming the designers who worked on these projects, it uses their failures as a way for us all to learn.
Having an appreciation of what the designer was trying to do, and understanding why they failed helps improve future ideas.
The museum has now made its way to Los Angeles, and I couldn’t be more excited.
What we learn from failure
Failure really is life’s best teacher, and we can learn a lot from the exhibits on offer.
Here are a few of my favourites.
We learned from the N-Gage that whilst mobile gaming was important to consumers, getting a full console-like experience wasn’t what they wanted. It became clear that more simple games, with more straightforward controls was the way forward.
Colgate’s Beef Lasagne
In the 80’s Colgate attempted to release a line of frozen dinners. As you can imagine, the minty-fresh image of Colgate didn’t exactly lend itself to beef.
Colgate’s foray into frozen ready meals teaches a valuable lesson. There’s only so far you can stretch one brand. Colgate is an awesome brand, no doubt. But going from dental hygiene to beef is just one leap too far for most consumers.
Blockbuster’s Video Rental Stores
Blockbuster did tremendously well in the rental market up until the early 00’s, but they were very suddenly knocked off their perch. This was thanks to digital distribution services like Netflix.
Blockbuster didn’t innovate, and that was their undoing. A really important case study for how you need to adapt to the changing needs of your users.
Start thinking about ‘positive failure’
‘Failure’ really is an interesting word.
We in the design industry are more open than most to talking about failure. But in the rest of the working world, it’s still a contentious topic.
Bosses and managers generally don’t want to be associated with failure. We’re trained by society to give negative connotations to the word.
Edward De Bono is a famous psychologist and business consultant. He does a lot of teaching around attitudes toward failure. De Bono makes the really interesting point that there’s no single word in the English language to articulate a ‘positive failure’.
Take the classic definition of success. We have a goal. We get there. Everyone’s happy, and there are good outcomes. Then there’s the classic definition of failure. We don’t meet the goal for whatever reason. Traditionally this is viewed as being a ‘bad’ outcome.
But then what if we meet the goal, but that goal wasn’t worth meeting in the first place? We’ve invested loads of time and energy for no gain. By definition it’s a success… but it’s a negative one.
On the other hand, what if we deliberately avoided the goal? Maybe we called the project off, or changed the outcome entirely. In this case, we fall short of the goal but still get something valuable from the journey. By definition that’s failure. But it’s a positive one.
A positive failure can be tremendously valuable. From the process of failing we can learn so much. In the long-term, it helps us get to the right place. This might be learning what our users actually want, or identifying pitfalls to avoid in later projects.
In language we don’t have a nice, fluffy word for this notion. We just have ‘failure’… And there’s still a real sense of shame associated to that word in many organisations.
I’m not clever enough to invent a new word, so instead I’ll settle for ‘positive failure’ - and trying to change people’s perceptions towards it.
An example of positive failure
So let’s take an example that I experienced personally, very recently.
I was doing some work with a financial investment company. The brief was to design a tool that would help investors to select the right kind of investment product for their ‘risk / reward’ preference.
The idea made sense to us, so we began by workshopping it with an internal team. We defined objectives and some key product principles.
We spent some time sketching up a concept and were all pretty happy with it. The client was, too.
This was taken into design, and we made some early prototypes to user test. That’s when things went a little south. What we learned almost immediately was that from the user’s point of view, the original idea was pointless.
The concept we came up with was universally torn apart by users.
The information we’d planned to show just wasn’t giving investors anything they didn’t already know. Basically, it went down like a lead balloon.
I played the results back to the client, and the project team. Naturally, it wasn’t the news they wanted to hear. But in the long run it was really helpful. We failed quickly, by realising we were on the total wrong track.
It was a positive failure. If we’d have plowed ahead and built the thing anyway, we’d have technically succeeding at delivering the tool, but what would have been the point?
We’d have spent a lot of time and money making something that users wouldn’t have cared about.
The value of this failure was a better understanding of what investors really do value. We could take these learnings forward into future concepts, more in line with what people actually wanted.
Share your failures
If we keep everyone informed about our failures, nobody has an excuse for making the same mistakes again.
When we all know what doesn’t succeed, we can eliminate those options from future conversations. This means we can be more focused on designing what works.
Working in a product team, I’ve gotten into the habit of decorating a working space with screenshots of feature iterations. This includes the ones that failed.
If something fails, stick it up on the wall anyway — and write down why, so that everyone can see.
We’re creatures of habit. It’s easy to slip into doing the same things repeatedly. That’s why it’s so good to have your memory jogged with past failures every now and again.
If your team isn’t working in the same physical space, you can communicate failure in other ways.
On a previous project working with many separate, remote teams - I actually ended up putting together a ‘failure playbook’. It sounds fancy, but it was just a simple google doc that summarised all of the failed experiments and ideas we tested - and what we learned from each. Using google docs meant that multiple designers could contribute, and keep it up to date.
Having this information readily available ensured that nobody repeated the same mistakes. The insights gained from failures super useful… So share them!
Prepare for failure
Techniques like rapid prototyping and user testing have allowed us to mitigate and control failure to such a point where experimentation is super profitable.
There are entire industries like Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO) built on the principles of repeated testing and learning. It often takes many, many failures for a design to eventually strike gold.
But to fail gracefully, it’s all about being prepared.
When an airline company design a new aircraft, they invest millions into special, controlled environments to test their prototypes. These artificial environments allow for safe experimentation… but they sure aren’t cheap.
In our industry we’re much luckier. We don’t need to build expensive wind tunnels in order to test our ideas.
In fact, the tools we need can be up and running in a matter of minutes. They’re super cheap, and often free. For example, a licence with Visual Website Optimiser starts at $49 a month.
For less than the cost of a round of drinks we can take the risk out of failure and experimentation on a website design.
Sometimes you don’t even need fancy tools. Just testing a sketch with users can be enough to prove the success or failure of an idea.
I love this industry, because over any other we have the capability to experiment and fail without fear.
In summary : embrace failure
There are still a lot of businesses who really fear failure. But when it comes to design, that just shouldn’t be the case.
Start talking to your teams about ‘positive failure’, and share what you learn.
Getting people over this irrational fear of failure moves us towards a more experimental culture. A culture where we can do much better, more useful work.