BLOG AND EMILI / The importance of failure in Design Thinking

The importance of failure in Design Thinking

Cover photo: Sarah Kilian via Unsplash

Fail fast, fail often is one of the recurring mantras in the world of startups and digital in general. The sooner an idea is tested, the sooner it's understood that it doesn't work, the better: this way, one can move on to the next experiment.

This motto is associated with various concepts in Lean and Design Thinking, such as MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and GOOB (Getting Out Of the Building, coined by Steve Blank): at its core is the notion that every project idea should be treated as a hypothesis to be validated with an experiment to be conducted with real users, "on the street". This is done through rapid and economical artifacts: according to Jeff Gothelf's definition, an MVP is "the smallest thing we can make to find out if our hypothesis is correct".

However, not all companies are startups, and failure is not always so welcome or desirable. Failing can mean losing users and shareholders; within organizations, it can entail losing face or jobs. Yet, outside of startup rhetoric, managing failure is crucial:

  • In a negative situation, of "widespread failure", experimenting through "controlled failure/success" experiments allows for a quicker response and avoids squandering precious resources;
  • In a positive situation, testing new solutions through MVPs and controlled failures allows for progressive movement and adherence to reality, avoiding "leaps of faith".

Let's look at two opposite examples, two stories distant in era and field that mirror the importance of verifying work hypotheses with users in the real world.


Fender: Back to the Past

una-chitarra-fender-stratocaster- tra- due- amplificatori- della- casa- californiana-Wikimedia -CommonsA Fender Stratocaster guitar between two amplifiers from the Californian company (Wikimedia Commons).(Wikimedia Commons).

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation is a renowned musical instrument manufacturer, primarily of electric guitars and amplifiers, which has linked its name to countless stars of rock and blues music. However, it has not always enjoyed the unconditional favor of its audience.

The company, founded in 1946 in California by Leo Fender, was sold in 1965 to the media giant CBS, which immediately introduced changes to the instruments and production. In the following years, guitarists spread the word that the quality of Fender guitars was no longer what it used to be: the quality of the woods, finishes, and electronics was perceived as inferior, and the changes introduced were often considered detrimental.

Thus was born among musicians the myth of the “pre-CBS” Fenders: many famous guitarists publicly expressed a preference for the instruments from the ‘50s/‘60s over the new ones. The old used guitars became sought after, while the new ones suffered from negative word of mouth. To make matters worse, in the 1970s, some Japanese companies began producing copies of pre-'65 Fenders, further eroding the market for the Californian company.

In the early ‘80s, Fender began to recognize its crisis and, after a management overhaul, announced in 1982 the first “Vintage” instrument line that reproduced the characteristics of the old models, including aesthetically. This was done with the publication of a new catalog and advertisements that immediately aroused the enthusiasm of guitarists. There’s a catch: Fender was not ready with the production of the Vintage lines, and it would not be for over a year. It was discovered that the ones photographed in the ads were Japanese copies with the Fender logo applied!

La- campagna- pubblicitaria -della -Vintage-Stratocaster- nel -1982- fonte-Vintage -Guitar- MagazineThe advertisement campaign for the Vintage Stratocaster in 1982 (source: Vintage Guitar Magazine).

The promotional material nonetheless achieved the desired result: the news of Fender's return to the past generated favorable word of mouth that would lead to the company's rebirth.

Fender probably had already decided to put the Vintage line into production when it launched the 1982 advertising campaign. However, from our perspective, we might consider the catalog as an MVP: the minimum artifact that allows testing the work hypothesis ("Customers want instruments that explicitly reproduce the past down to the smallest details"), and the interest generated is the measure to decide whether to proceed, or how much to bet on the direction taken.

Today, we would call this type of MVP a feature fake, or a button to nowhere: it's what we do when we create a landing page for the launch of a product with a single Call To Action inviting users to sign up for updates; or a button within our application that promises to perform an action but leads the user to a coming soon. Our product does not yet exist, but we pretend we are ready to distribute it: the number of clicks gives us a measure of our audience's interest, and justifies the decision to move forward or not.

AND EMILI specializes in development and strategic consulting for digital channels.

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JC Penney: copying Apple can't go wrong (?)

We're used to hearing about Apple in relation to its many successes, but this story deals with a spectacular failure (which only indirectly concerns the Cupertino company).

Un- Apple -Store -Wikimedia- CommonsAn Apple Store (Wikimedia Commons).

In the 2000s, Apple continues on the path of rebirth, which began at the end of the '90s with the return of Steve Jobs and the launch of the first iMac. One of the keys to success is the Apple Stores, an innovative store format aimed at making technology user-friendly: relaxed environments where salespeople welcome customers and offer advice through the "Genius Bar," an almost convivial area where it's possible to learn how to use the devices.

Ron Johnson, head of the retail division, is considered the main architect behind the success of the Apple Stores: he seems to have applied Apple's "magic touch" to technology stores, the same touch that designer Jonathan Ive applied to personal computers.

So, when the department store chain JC Penney hires Johnson as CEO in the fall of 2011, the bet seems well-placed. The Texan company is competing at the top of the U.S. retail market with giants like Macy’s and Kohl’s: Johnson's goal is to evolve the brand and eliminate inefficiencies that could create growing problems in a market already besieged by e-commerce.

uno- store- JC -penney- in- florida -negli -anni- 2000 -wikimedia- commonsA JC Penney store in Florida in the 2000s (Wikimedia Commons)

Ron Johnson presents an ambitious plan at the beginning of 2012 aimed at immediately revolutionizing all JC Penney stores: among the strongest ideas is the introduction of an Apple-style Genius Bar and the drastic reduction of discounts, which for years the chain has offered in the form of coupons that customers find and collect everywhere. The numbers show that most discounts are not utilized, Johnson says: his conclusion is that too many promotional offers confuse the public; clearer prices and no more than three price ranges are better.

It takes only a few months to see that the strategy does not work. Customers and revenues plummet, the company's stocks follow, and by the end of 2012, the top management starts to "lose heads." The crisis culminates with Ron Johnson's dismissal in April 2013, just 17 months after his triumphant entry.

Among the main mistakes made by Johnson was treating a hypothesis that needed validation as an established truth: the statement "customers are confused by the overabundance of discounts and coupons", although seemingly supported by numbers, should have been tested in a real, limited, and controlled context. The MVP in this case could have been a pilot project in a few significant cities, or a communication campaign (like Fender's '82 advertisement) that announced the cutting of coupons. If JC Penney had interviewed customers in these scenarios, it would have discovered that coupons are one of the most beloved features of the chain; that the public enjoys collecting them to hunt for discounts in the store. Instead, Johnson based the radical renewal of the entire chain on an assumption that proved to be wrong when put to the test.

Some considerations

What ideas can we draw from these two stories? Let's list some.

Every idea is a hypothesis to validate

In the world of design, there are no absolute truths: no matter how much data we may have to support our idea, we must always treat it as a hypothesis to validate, repeatedly and in various phases. The validation process does not end with an MVP; at each iteration, we will discover new unknowns, which we will validate with further experiments.

No one has the Midas touch

The role of the designer is not to have good ideas: it's to help others have good ideas. Those involved in Product Design and User Experience must first and foremost act as facilitators within the organization: they should promote the emergence of diverse viewpoints and channel them into work hypotheses to test in the real world. It's time to leave behind the myth of the superstar designer that articles and movies have fed us for years.

No matter how big you are, always start small

An MVP can be something very small, even embarrassingly so: it might resemble a deceit, like a cardboard cutout on a movie set. The point is: why spend more time and money if that's all we need to understand whether we're heading in the right direction? Having a budget does not mean we can afford to waste it, especially in a field where, by definition, we deal with uncertainty: let's do something small today to discover what we need to learn tomorrow.

What Works for X Doesn't Automatically Work for Y

Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook… we are often tempted to think that what works for them will automatically work for us or our client. Not only is this wrong, but it can be very harmful: applying a solution designed for different customer segments, under different organizational and technological conditions can lead us completely astray; and the right path always involves engaging with who our users are.

"When it comes to human beings, context is everything"

The quote is by Erika Hall. We can build complex and elaborate theories on graphs, numbers, analytics, but there's a fundamental point: quantitative analysis numbers will tell us that something is happening, but not why it's happening. Qualitative analysis tools, such as interviews and user tests, allow us to understand the why, which will have multiple aspects: human beings are rational only to a minimal extent, and their decisions are influenced by environmental, cultural, social factors... in a word: context.

Thank you for making it this far.

I'll close with a small disclaimer: the two stories have been simplified for brevity and to convey the message… If you want to learn more, follow the links in the article.

AND EMILI specializes in development and strategic consulting for digital channels.

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